What Is the Relationship Between Faith and Knowledge?

The authors of the Book of Mormon were comfortable declaring their knowledge of the truthfulness of their message:

  • In the first chapter of the book, Nephi says, “I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge” (1 Nephi 1:3).
  • The prophet Alma testified to the people of Zarahemla, “I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true” (Alma 5:45).
  • In one of his editorial notes, Mormon tells us, “I know the record which I make to be a just and a true record” (3 Nephi 5:18).

How did they know, and what is the relationship between knowledge and faith?

Alma explained to the Zoramites that faith leads to knowledge. When you plant a seed, you don’t know whether it will sprout. You make the effort because you believe that the seed will grow, but you don’t know for sure what will happen. When it does grow, then you have evidence that the seed is good. Your faith becomes dormant—you no longer have to make an effort to believe, because you know that the seed is good. It grew. You saw the result. You know it (Alma 32:28-34).

After telling the people of Zarahemla that he knew his words were true, he asked them, “How do ye suppose that I know of their surety?” He explained, “I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit” (Alma 5:45-46). Alma planted a seed. He didn’t know for sure what would happen, but he planted it, acting in faith, and believing that the seed would grow. When he experienced the Holy Spirit telling him that the gospel was true, he no longer had to believe. He had received an answer for himself. He knew it.

On the one hand, your faith is dormant when a seed you have planted begins to grow. On the other hand, you still need faith, because there is still so much that you don’t know. Your faith has actually been strengthened by the process: The seed you planted actually grew, so you have more confidence in taking other actions based on faith. As you do, you receive additional evidence which leads to more knowledge which forms the foundation for you to exercise additional faith. It’s a virtuous cycle (Alma 32:35-36).

Today, I will remember that faith leads to knowledge. I will act in faith, planting seeds which I hope are good. As those seeds begin to grow, my faith will be replaced by knowledge, which will in turn strengthen my faith.

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Why Are Some Blessings Conditional on Our Faith?

During the Savior’s mortal ministry, He frequently urged His disciples to develop greater faith. He asked the terrified disciples on the ship In the storm, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25) When Peter began to sink after walking on the water, He asked, “Wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matthew 14:31) He told his disciples how pleased He was with a non-Jewish centurion, saying, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8:10).

We find the same pattern in the Book of Mormon. After Enos’s sins were forgiven, he asked, “Lord, how is it done?” The answer: “Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen…. Thy faith hath made thee whole” (Enos 1:8). Both Moroni and the Apostle Paul both gave us lists of people who received blessings only after they had faith (Ether 12:10-22, Hebrews 11).

Why must we exercise faith before receiving some blessings? The prophet Joseph Smith taught: “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21).

The Bible Dictionary teaches us that “blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them” (“Prayer,” Bible Dictionary). For some blessings, that effort is faith. Faith is a form of work, and when we exercise faith, we invite the power of God into our lives.

There are many different ways to exercise our faith. For example:

  • Obeying a commandment from God, even when it is unpopular or difficult.
  • Continuing to fulfill an assignment over time, even when the apparent return on our investment is negligible.
  • Choosing not to panic or give up when we face challenges beyond our abilities.
  • Patiently waiting for an outcome when there is nothing more we can do to help achieve it.

Each of these actions requires a proactive decision on our part and sustained effort over a period of time. That effort may be visible (through action) or invisible (in our thoughts and feelings). But either way, it is real.

Today, I will exercise my faith. I will remember that acting in faith will open blessings to me that I can receive in no other way.

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What Should I Do When There Are Questions I Can’t Answer?

Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum. Concepts and facts relate to one another, and understanding a concept in isolation is likely of limited value.

Isaiah taught that some knowledge has prerequisites:

Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.
For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little (Isaiah 28:9-10).

Nephi expanded on this concept, teaching that only people who are receptive learners can grow through the levels of knowledge described by Isaiah:

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have (2 Nephi 28:30).

We all understand this principle when it comes to secular learning. You can’t teach someone calculus if they haven’t mastered basic arithmetic. The same is true of spiritual knowledge. You need a foundation of basic gospel concepts in order to have a frame of reference for new information. Some questions must wait until you have the understanding to place the answer in an appropriate context.

As a seminary teacher, I used an example of a jigsaw puzzle to teach this principle. Suppose that I gave you a single puzzle piece and asked where it fits:

singlepuzzlepiece

Without any other pieces in place, you can’t answer my question. Furthermore, even if I have a complete collection of pieces, it is highly unlikely that I will be successful in solving the puzzle by starting in the middle. Most of us start by finding the corner pieces, which are much easier to place.cornerpuzzlepieces

Then, we fill in the sides to create a frame. After that, we find it much easier to fill in the rest of the puzzle. But even then, there are pieces which we temporarily set aside, trusting that we will see where they fit eventually. As other pieces fall into place, eventually it becomes clear where our center pieces fit:

puzzlemostlydone

I think this is why prophets often reaffirm what they already know even as they acknowledge what they have yet to learn. They aren’t giving up on answering the question eventually; they are simply acknowledging that the new knowledge, when it comes, will be connected to knowledge they have already received.

For example:

  • When an angel asked Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi answered by first stating what he knew: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:16-17).
  • As the prophet Alma taught members of the church in the city of Gideon, he acknowledged something he didn’t know, but he immediately reaffirmed something he did know: “Behold, I do not say that he will come among us at the time of his dwelling in his mortal tabernacle; for behold, the Spirit hath not said unto me that this should be the case. Now as to this thing I do not know; but this much I do know, that the Lord God hath power to do all things which are according to his word” (Alma 7:8).
  • Mormon acknowledges that he doesn’t understand how the three Nephite disciples can remain on the earth until the Savior’s second coming, but he immediately follows with something he knows for sure: “And now, whether they were mortal or immortal, from the day of their transfiguration, I know not; but this much I know, according to the record which hath been given—they did go forth upon the face of the land, and did minister unto all the people, uniting as many to the church as would believe in their preaching; baptizing them, and as many as were baptized did receive the Holy Ghost” (3 Nephi 28:17-18).

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland provided the following guidance when we face difficult questions that we can’t immediately answer: “hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes” (“Lord, I Believe,” General Conference, April 2013).

Today, I will remember that the process of gaining spiritual knowledge is incremental. There will always be some questions that I can’t immediately answer, because I don’t yet have enough understanding to provide a context for them. I will follow the examples of Nephi, Alma, and Mormon, reaffirming what I already know to ensure that I have a solid foundation for the additional knowledge I will receive over time.

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What Does It Mean to Search the Scriptures?

After leaving the city of Jerusalem with his family, Lehi sent his sons back to obtain the words of the prophets and a genealogy of their ancestors which were recorded on a set of brass plates. When his sons returned with this sacred record, Lehi “gave thanks unto the God of Israel.” Then, he “took the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, and he did search them from the beginning” (1 Nephi 5:9-10).

His son Jacob later tells us that the people received revelation, strengthened their faith, and experienced peace and the love of God because they searched the scriptures (Jacob 4:6, Jacob 7:23).

King Benjamin counseled his sons to search the scriptures diligently and promised that they would “profit thereby” (Mosiah 1:7).

The sons of Mosiah became powerful spiritual teachers in part because “they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God” (Mosiah 17:2-3).

After quoting the words of Isaiah, the Savior twice commanded the people to search them (3 Nephi 20:11, 3 Nephi 23:1). Moroni later reiterated this admonition: “Search the prophecies of Isaiah” (Mormon 8:23).

What does it all mean? Searching implies to me looking for something in particular, either something I’ve lost or something specific which I hope to find. It also implies a level of concentration that goes beyond browsing, perusing, or exploring.

What exactly are we looking for when we search the scriptures? I think we are looking for messages from God to us. I think we are trying to understand His will and His plan for us. I think we are looking for guidance about how we can align our lives more fully with His will.

How is “searching” different from merely “reading” or “studying”? According to Elder David A. Bednar, searching involves identifying “connections, patterns, and themes” which recur in various parts of the scriptures. Here is an example of how he searched to better understand the concept of the gathering of Israel:

In preparation for a recent speaking assignment, I was impressed to talk about the spirit and purposes of gathering. I had been studying and pondering Elder Russell M. Nelson’s recent conference message on the principle of gathering, and the topic was perfectly suited to the nature of and setting for my assignment.
I recognized that I had much to learn from the scriptures about gathering. So I identified and made copies of every scripture in the standard works that included any form of the word gather. I next read each scripture, looking for connections, patterns, and themes. It is important to note that I did not start my reading with a preconceived set of things for which I was looking. I prayed for the assistance of the Holy Ghost and simply started reading.
As I reviewed the scriptures about gathering, I marked verses with similar phrases or points of emphasis, using a colored pencil. By the time I had read all of the scriptures, some of the verses were marked in red, some were marked in green, and some were marked in other colors….
I next used my scissors to cut out the scriptures I had copied and sorted them into piles by color. The process produced a large pile of scriptures marked with red, a large pile of scriptures marked with green, and so forth. I then sorted the scriptures within each large pile into smaller piles. As a first grader I must have really liked cutting with scissors and putting things into piles!
The results of this process taught me a great deal about the principle of gathering. For example, I learned from examining my large piles that the scriptures describe at least three key aspects of gathering: the purposes of gathering, the types and places of gathering, and the blessings of gathering (“A Reservoir of Living Water,” BYU Devotional Address, 4 February 2007).

Today, I will recommit to truly search the words of the prophets as recorded in the scriptures. I will follow Elder Bednar’s example, looking for connections, patterns, and themes as I read the word of God. I will strive through this process to understand what God is trying to teach me.

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Why Is It Important to Prioritize Our Questions?

The prophet Alma had lots of questions. Not just the rhetorical questions he asked the members of the church in Zarahemla, but also soul-stretching questions which he worked and prayed to resolve. In Alma 40, he shares with his son Corianton some things which he learned by “diligently” asking God the following question:

“What becometh of the souls of men from this time of death to the time appointed for the resurrection” (Alma 40:7)?

He shares the answers he received with his son, because he recognizes that his son has some of the same questions (Alma 40:1). While he does so, Alma models an important behavior of a learner: sifting through many questions to figure out the ones that really matter. Here are a few offshoots of the question which Alma acknowledges but does not answer:

  • When is the resurrection? (“No one knows,” he says, but it will be “after the coming of Christ” (Alma 40:2, 4).
  • Are people resurrected at different times? (“It mattereth not,” he says, “for God knoweth all these things.” We don’t all die at the same time, and “all is as one day with God,” so Alma is content to know that we will all be resurrected at some point in time (Alma 40:5, 8).
  • Will the wicked and the righteous be resurrected at the same time? (“I do not say,” he tells Corianton. But “I give it as my opinion, that the souls and the bodies are reunited, of the righteous, at the resurrection of Christ, and his ascension into heaven” (Alma 40:19-20).

In between these statements, in which he acknowledges his own limitations, Alma testifies of the truths he does know:

  • Between death and the resurrection, the spirits of the righteous are separated from the spirits of the wicked. The righteous are in a state of happiness, and the wicked are in a state of misery (Alma 40:11-14).
  • The resurrection means the “the reuniting of the soul with the body” (Alma 40:18).
  • When we are resurrected, our bodies will be perfect: “Every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame” (Alma 40:23).

For me, this is a very powerful example of disciplined spiritual learning. Alma knew that he wouldn’t be able to understand all aspects of this topic, at least not all at once. And so, he intentionally spent time and energy focusing on the questions which he considered to be most important, and he intentionally set aside less important questions.

I once received the following counsel from Elder Neal A. Maxwell in answer to a question: “If there are things we do not understand or that seem exotic to us, it is alright to wonder about them, but not to let them become a distraction to us” (Personal conversation, 14 March 1992).

Today, I will prioritize my questions. I will follow Alma’s example, working and praying diligently to understand things that really matter, while setting aside questions of lesser importance. I will remember that I have limited time and energy, and that I need to spend them on the things that matter most.

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What Are the Characteristics of a Good Question?

In the Book of Mormon, many questions are asked, with different purposes. Here are some of the types of questions found in the book:

  • Requesting guidance or direction: “What shall we do?” (Alma 32:5)
  • Requesting information: “What becometh of the souls of men from this time of death to the time appointed for the resurrection?” (Alma 40:7)
  • Searching for understanding: “Lord, how is it done?” (Enos 1:7)
  • Seeking to understand another person’s thoughts or feelings: “What desirest thou of me?” (Alma 18:15)
  • Calling someone to action or to repentance: “Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” (2 Nephi 4:27)
  • Inviting: “Will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Nephi 9:13)
  • Testing someone’s knowledge: “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” (1 Nephi 11:21)
  • Rhetorical questions intended to prompt thought: “Know ye not that ye are in the hands of God? Know ye not that he hath all power, and at his great command the earth shall be rolled together as a scroll?” (Mormon 5:23)

There are also questions which are intended to reinforce negative behavior, to ridicule someone, or to create doubt:

  • Reinforcing negative behavior: “O king, what great evil hast thou done, or what great sins have thy people committed, that we should be condemned of God or judged of this man?” (Mosiah 12:13)
  • Ridiculing someone: “Hast thou seen an angel? Why do not angels appear unto us? Behold are not this people as good as thy people?” (Alma 21:5)
  • Creating doubt: “O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ?” (Alma 30:13)

Here are my observations, after considering all of these types of questions:

  1. Good questions are respectful. They encourage the responder to express themselves and to act for themselves.
  2. Good questions are humble. They generally communicate a lack of knowledge on the part of the questioner.
  3. Good questions tend to be open-ended. They are not burdened with assumptions about the answer. They seek for an expansion of understanding, not a reinforcement of previously held views.
  4. Good questions are hopeful. They encourage faith rather than fear.
  5. Good questions are sincere. They represent the honest intentions of the questioner, with no hidden agenda.

In the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Moroni invites us to ask God if the book is true. He provides the following guidance about how to ask the question in order to ensure that we receive an answer: “If ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4).

Today, I will ask good questions. I will strive to set aside my preconceptions and formulate questions which help me to truly learn. I will ask questions which help me to understand other people and which respect their agency. I will also ask questions which communicate my faith in God and my willingness to follow His guidance.

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Why Is It Important to Ask Questions?

During 2019, I’m going to organize my study around questions. Each day, I’m going to ask a question and see what I can learn from the Book of Mormon about that question. I have received a number of questions from readers, and I would love to have you submit more questions (anonymously) on my Questions submission form. I’m also going to ponder some of the 544 questions found in the Book of Mormon.

This week, I’m starting the process by asking a few questions about questions. I start the year with the most fundamental question of all:

Why is it important to ask questions?

After Lehi shared with his sons a spiritual dream he had experienced, none of them fully understood what he had taught them. One of them—Nephi—took his questions to the Lord. He knew that God would answer his prayer. “He that diligently seeketh shall find,” he tells us, “and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (1 Nephi 10:19). In contrast, his brothers argued and complained that they couldn’t understand their father’s words. Nephi understood the confusion, “for he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord” (1 Nephi 15:3). But he didn’t understand why they were unwilling to ask their questions. “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” he asked, and they replied, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us’ (1 Nephi 15:8-9). They had hardened their hearts and closed their minds. Because they didn’t believe that they would receive an answer, they were unwilling to ask the question. Therefore, they didn’t receive an answer. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nephi later warns us not to stop wanting to learn more. Commenting on Isaiah’s declaration that we learn “line upon line” and “precept upon precept” (Isaiah 28:9-13), Nephi said:

Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have (2 Nephi 28:29-30).

The prophet Alma taught the people of Ammonihah that choosing not to harden our hearts is a key to acquiring spiritual knowledge:

He that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full (Alma 12:10).

As a fourteen-year-old boy, Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son in a vision because he asked a sincere question: “Which church should I join?” (Joseph Smith—History 1:15-20). He was inspired to do so, in part, by the following passage from the Epistle of James in the Bible:

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him (James 1:5).

President Russell M. Nelson has counseled us to follow the same pattern with our questions:

What will your seeking open for you? What wisdom do you lack? What do you feel an urgent need to know or understand? Follow the example of the Prophet Joseph. Find a quiet place where you can regularly go. Humble yourself before God. Pour out your heart to your Heavenly Father. Turn to Him for answers and for comfort.
Pray in the name of Jesus Christ about your concerns, your fears, your weaknesses—yes, the very longings of your heart. And then listen! Write the thoughts that come to your mind. Record your feelings and follow through with actions that you are prompted to take. As you repeat this process day after day, month after month, year after year, you will “grow into the principle of revelation” (“Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,” General Conference, April 2018).

So at least one answer to the question, “Why ask questions?” is because we have so much to learn. When we ask, we demonstrate our faith that God will answer us, and we open our mind and our heart to receive the further wisdom and understanding which can only come to us one step at a time.

Today, I will follow the counsel of Nephi, Alma, and President Nelson: I will ask God for the wisdom I need.  I will avoid hardening my heart, by acknowledging that I still have much to learn and believing that God will help me acquire the knowledge I lack.

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