I admit, I have often thought it was a little cheesy to start with a dictionary definition of something, but in this case I want to do just that, because there are two sides of what ‘faith’ means, and those two sides are what I will be talking about today.
The first definition of faith is “belief in something for which there is no proof.” We believe things we have been taught. We believe that God is there, we believe that He hears our prayers. But we don’t have proof for any of it.
The second definition of faith is “allegiance to duty or a person, loyalty, fidelity to one's promises, or sincerity of intentions.” This can be summed up with the word trust. We may have faith—trust—in a person or in a promise. When we speak in religious terms, we mean that we trust that the things we have been taught about the gospel will happen the way we’ve been taught.
The scriptures talk about some people having the gift of faith, or of belief. For those people, it seems natural to be trusting and believing. For many of us however it is not as simple. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican priest in the 1200s, taught that faith is ‘midway between knowledge and opinion.’ Faith resembles knowledge, Aquinas said, in so far as faith carries conviction. But it’s not the same as knowledge because there isn’t that physical proof.. Faith or belief becomes a choice we make when our senses are not able to give us scientific evidence. As Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). If we had sight—if we had proof—we would not need to believe, because we would know.
Some things are easy to believe. Nobody has to ask you to believe in gravity, because you have proof of it all around you. On the other hand, no amount of money could make you genuinely believe that snow is green, again because you have proof of the truth all around you. But God and the gospel are different, because there seems to be evidence on both sides.
It would seem that among those who are committed to the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and rational inquiry, faith is as often a casualty as it is a product. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and to have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing them to be true. I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice—and, therefore, the more deliberate and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. The option to believe must appear on our personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. One is, it would seem, always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.
[The gospel] message [spreads] because millions of men and women have freely chosen to believe. They [listened to] the opinions of doubters, and they gave a hearing to the critics. They know Joseph was human and subject to err, but they sampled [the gospel] and agreed [that the fruit was sweet]. They found reason to doubt, and they found reason to believe. They chose to believe.
Some people understand faith as a kind of knowledge attended by a certainty that excludes doubt. But faith cannot be all mental. The reformer Calvin said that faith-knowledge is not only ‘revealed to our minds’ but also ‘sealed upon our hearts’. In this model faith will have an emotional as well as cognitive side.
If you consider the average LDS testimony meeting, you will probably hear person after person declare that they know things. That they know that God lives or that they know that the Book of Mormon is true. These messages of shared belief can be powerful for building community, but this rhetoric of knowing can also have a downside. It can create the tragic impression that with certainty there is no room or need for searching; and it can create discomfort and alienation on the part of those who do not or cannot share in expressions of serene, unconflicted conviction.
Like Calvin said about faith being ‘revealed to our minds’ and also ‘sealed upon our hearts,’ The Doctrine and Covenants says that the Holy Ghost speaks to us in our minds AND our hearts. Faith includes belief and action, and also doubt, and also feelings. A heart that believes—or even that simply wants to believe—can sustain us even when our minds go through ups and downs. For many of us, the natural ups and downs—the doubts that come hand in hand with belief—are scary things. Especially in the context of a church with so many people around us saying that they know. I’m sure we have all heard that faith is the opposite of fear, and that the two cannot exist together, because each will cast out the other. 1 John 4:8 says that “perfect love casts out fear,” so then I begin to think about the love—or heart—aspect of faith. Paul taught that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). God knows that we will have doubts, but he also tells us not to be afraid. Instead he counsels us to rely on power, love, and a sound mind. Our desiring, trusting, believing, learning, hoping, and pressing on in spite of doubts gives us the strength to cast out fear and carry on.