How Faith Can Soar to Knowledge

Dear Joseph,

It’s been a while since I’ve written; you’ve given quite a lot of information to digest in your letters to me and there’s just been a lot going on elsewhere in life lately on top of it. But, if I understood your last letter correctly, it all essentially boils down to this: knowing the truth is important. You gave many examples and explanations as for why this was so and what we can do to recognize truth when we see and hear it.

This does not seem to line up with—if not go against—what I’ve been told before, that what we need to truly come close to God is faith—specifically faith without knowledge; I’ve been told that choosing to believe the truth takes more conviction than simply knowing what the truth is.

Be that as it may be, I guess I don’t see the point in God’s forcing us into faith over knowledge either. I mean, doesn’t it take a good deal of self-discipline and/or trust (i.e. faith) to act on the truth you know? Why leave any room for doubt or interpretation whatsoever when it comes to this stuff? What’s worse is that I supposedly knew all the answers to these questions before I was born, in my pre-life existence. But now, purportedly in an effort to move a step forward in my relationship with Christ, I find myself apparently two steps back. This plan seems like a rather buggy one for having come from God himself.

So, if we’re supposed to know the truth, and we’ve got all these wonderful instructions for how to know truth when we’re exposed to it, why go through the whole charade at all? We knew all this already. How does unlearning something just to relearn it move us closer to God? Doesn’t that just put us back where we started to begin with, or at least start us off with a handicap on our journey?  Way back, you told me that the whole point of this life was that it was a proving ground for our faith. But why is faith so terribly important in the first place, as opposed to good ol’ knowledge?

—Thomas


Dear Thomas,

It’s good to hear your voice again (or at least hear it in my head as I read your letter). Your wit and sensibility are as bright and  welcome as ever. You’ve written some very good questions here, and I am so enthused to respond that I can hardly bear to spend another sentence in decorous reminiscence. I hope you won’t mind if I spare humoring you with continued expression of my gladness in receiving word from you again. I trust that you, as ever, can detect my sincerity.

Your questions to me are right in line with what I considered writing to you about anyway if I’d only taken the time to write to you unprompted, as it were. Recall the post script of my last letter:

“I think that I would like to write you another letter soon detailing the differences and relationships between faith, belief, and knowledge since we dipped our toes into it at the end here.”

And you’ve just written to me thusly:

“…Doesn’t it take a good deal of self-discipline and/or trust (i.e. faith) to act on the truth you know?”

I will say firstly: yes, it does. But before we dig deeply into the inner workings of faith, we need to establish some surface-level semantics, some definitions we can mutually accept so that we’re sure we’re on the same page moving forward:

  1. Belief: a principle of trust; a mental, positive decidedness in the unseen;
  2. Faith: (1) a working hope in things that are not seen, but which are true; not a perfect knowledge; (2) a principle of action among all intelligent beings.
  3. Knowledge: a personal witness of the truthfulness to a great degree on a given subject.

Now allow me to illustrate these principles by applying them to the scientific world (often considered a faith-less subject, though that is not the case):

A young and ignorant man entered his first day of biology class. He was early so it was just him and the professor in the room alone. The professor asked what the new student knew of biology to which the young man replied that he comparatively didn’t know his right hand from his left. Astounded, the professor asked if the student had ever heard of microbes and germs. The young man replied that he hadn’t. Still in astonishment, the professor quizzed the young man as to how many organisms he thought were present in the room. (The professor had to explain that an organism was an individual form of life.) The student replied that there were two present: the young man himself and the professor. The professor corrected the young man, saying that there were in fact millions of unseeable organisms present in the room. The young man refused to believe it. The professor produced a microscope from his desk and invited the young man to look into its lens to learn for himself. The young man looked through the scope and then reeled back in fear, exclaiming that he beheld monsters eight feet long. The professor explained that the nature of the microscope was to take the tiny, unseeable organisms around them and make their image large enough for human eyes to behold. With wonder in his mind from the special experience before class, the young man went on to study the unseeable world harder than any of his classmates, and he would eventually go on to become himself a great professor.

I’m sure that you are insightful enough to identify the principles of belief, faith, and knowledge in the above story, but let me draw them out for you to be sure that we have a mutual understanding:

The ignorant young man at first possessed none of the qualities of belief, faith, or knowledge. Even when told by the professor who had himself a knowledge of the millions of organisms around him, the young man refused to believe it. So the professor invited the young man to act. The young man did not know what he would see in the microscope, but he had faith, as demonstrated by his peering into the lens, that following the professor’s commands would result in something. He did not know at first how to interpret what he had seen, but the professor’s explanation helped the young man turn his experience into knowledge. The young man then began his schooling believing in unseen things, having gained a knowledge by faith.

So, Thomas, it is with the unbeliever in revelation, though the roles and tools are somewhat different. The unbeliever does not believe in God, in angels, or in spirits because he cannot see them. But let him exercise faith to peer through a spiritual lens, which comes through obedience to the commandments of God—let him get the Spirit of God, and he then he can see the truth—he can gain a knowledge of spiritual things. It is the same process.

But faith doesn’t end with knowledge! No, definition number (1) of faith is no longer needed when a knowledge is obtained, but definition (2) is (reprinted below for convenience):

Faith: (1) a working hope in things that are not seen, but which are true; not a perfect knowledge; (2) a principle of action among all intelligent beings.

As with the young man who was enabled to begin his study of biology with a knowledge of the unseen world of microorganisms, he then had to ask himself, “Now that I know they are real, what will I do about it?” The response to his knowledge was what I termed in my last letter “the measure” of his faith. The young man could have done any number of things after returning to his seat: he could have dropped out of class; he could have kept his hands off his desk for fear of the germs; or he could even have gone to the microscope for a second, and a third, and a fourth look, trying to disprove the notion that the microscope did what the professor claimed it did. In my example, he chose to believe, which led to faith in higher concepts, which led to knowledge of higher concepts, and so on (a positive loop, upwards and onwards) until he too became a knowledgeable professor. But he could have chosen to disbelieve, and had no faith, and gained no knowledge (a negative loop) and dropped out of class—it would have been the same opportunity but a far different and faithless reaction.

So too it is with the unbeliever in revelation. He may obey the commandments, gain the spirit of God, gain a spiritual witness—a knowledge—of something spiritual, and then choose to disbelieve it, endeavoring to explain it away as a coincidence or nothing special—he could go on a negative loop. Then there is no faith, and the knowledge he once enjoyed is devalued in his mind to the point that he sets it aside as a fluke. Or he could take that witness and choose to believe it, which leads to faith in higher concepts, which leads to action, which leads to knowledge of higher concepts, and so on, riding the positive loop to greater and greater heights, as Joseph Smith said:

“…The nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin; and like the ancients, arrives at that point of faith where he is wrapped in the power and glory of his Maker and is caught up to dwell with Him.
“[…] But we consider that this is a station to which no man ever arrived in a moment: he must have been instructed…” (Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [STPJS], p.51).

So why doesn’t everybody just get ‘wrapped in the power and glory’ already? Because of what you asked: ‘…Doesn’t it take a good deal of self-discipline and/or trust… to act on the truth you know?’ And my answer: ‘Yes, it does.’ In fact, it takes so much discipline and trust that few people ever submit so fully to the commandments of God that they reach that high station. Hence the scriptures say, “many are called, but few are chosen” (D&C 121:40; Matthew 22:14; see also Matthew 20:16).

(And of course then there’s the opposition, helmed by Satan himself, that makes the opposite course—the downward loop—seem ever so much more attractive and logical and easy. To be certain, this classroom is a battlefield. But let’s not get into that side of things for the moment.)

Thomas, you also said this:

“This plan seems like a rather buggy one for having come from God himself…. If we’re supposed to know the truth, and we’ve got all these wonderful instructions for how to know truth when we’re exposed to it, why go through the whole charade at all? We knew all this already. How does unlearning something just to relearn it move us closer to God?”

I tell you, those are such beautiful questions. I could read them over and over all day!

To answer them, let me share with you another story:

There was once a beautiful eagle that could soar higher than all the other birds in the forest. This majestic creature had powerful wings that enabled it to fly high to its lofty heights while all the other birds and creatures of the woods watched in awe. One day an inquisitive blue jay perched near the eagle’s home to await an audience with the grand fowl. The blue jay had struggled to reach the eagle’s nest as it was located high atop a lonesome cliff where the wind blew ferociously. And at such a perilous spot he was surprised to find three large eggs. The eagle suddenly and gracefully returned to her nest and stared intently at the blue jay.
“Why are you here?” the eagle demanded.
“I’ve come to ask thee a question, mighty eagle,” quivered the tiny blue jay. “How is it that thine wings art able to take thee so high?”
“Have you not wings?” came the eagle’s swift reply.
“I have, but they cannot carry me as thine doth carry thee.”
“Return on the morning of the third day, and I will show you my secret.”
The nervous blue jay reverently bowed and then flapped away, down to his forest home below. Three days later, as the sun was beginning to rise, the blue jay returned to the eagle’s lofty home. He was surprised to find that instead of three eggs in the nest there were three tiny eagles. The mother eagle’s eggs had hatched while the blue jay had been away. The eagle gave a sharp look at the blue jay and then stepped aside so that he could see what the little eagles were doing. When the strong wind would race up the cliff wall and threaten the little eagles’ stances, they would open their wings and let the gust lift them off their feet. Again and again the strong wind would cause the young eagles to practice soaring little by little. To the blue jay’s estimation, they were already better than he at soaring. The mother eagle then focused her steely eye on the blue jay, and said,
“My secret is that my mother taught me to spread my wings into the wind, not to fear the boisterous gale; and that has made all the difference.”

“…The eagle’s nest… was located high atop a lonesome cliff where the wind blew ferociously.”

In the preexistence, we developed many attributes and talents (note: not talons). We learned about mortality and the process we would have to undergo here to become like our Father in Heaven. Though I wouldn’t claim that we ‘knew [it] all… already’ before this life, we knew quite a bit that we had to forget (Again, the only way for us to continue to grow was to come to earth and experience the viscisitudes of mortality [remember, there was no other way]). But even with all of that knowledge before this life, there was at least one grand bit of knowledge we did not and could not possess: the ability to exercise faith.

You said:

“Way back, you told me that the whole point of this life was that it was a proving ground for our faith. But why is faith so terribly important in the first place, as opposed to good ol’ knowledge?”

Yes, this life is a proving ground for our faith because it couldn’t be proved in the preexistence, and without faith, we cannot soar. In the preexistence we were like baby eagles with wings inside of eggs—we had studied all about faith, but couldn’t properly learn how to use it until we had a chance to try it. So we are born in a world where most spiritual things—certainly the heavenly variety—are unseen, and nothing but faith manifest in works (obedience to the commandments; see James 2:14-18) can remove the veil. The earth is perched upon the windy cliffs of sin and opposition so that we might learn to prize the heavenly and exercise faith unto salvation. And if we can do it, we too will soar like our Father in Heaven soars.

Put another way, all the knowledge in the world—all of the book smarts about how to ride a bicycle—means nothing if we cannot ourselves go out to a bicycle and ride it, putting that learning into practice. You might want to see the face of God—perhaps the equivalent of doing a superman on a BMX bike—but you ‘must have been instructed’ from the basics of simply pedaling to get to that point.

Remember how I once wrote to you about how you sustained Christ as king before this life? You would not be here now had you not made that vitally important decision—the right decision—once before. You certainly had quite a bit of knowledge back then, though you’ve had to forget it for now. The test now is to sustain Christ but in faith—which consequently can turn to a knowledge in this life. The existence of that potential does not negate the necessity of faith, but it provides a hope that your works will lead to something important, even life eternal. Does the scripture say, “And this is life eternal, that they might have faith in thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”? No; importantly it reads: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3, emphasis added).

“How does unlearning something just to relearn it move us closer to God?”

Someday, the veil will be removed from our minds fully, and we will exclaim that God has been perfectly just in all his dealings with man. At that time, our previous learning will come back to us—we will realize that ‘unlearning’ did not take place. Some will have spread their wings of faith and will have taken flight to ‘power and glory,’ and others will have languished in fear, submitting instead to Satan’s temptations to disbelieve and ultimately fail the test (see Abraham 3:26). And in these you will discover the true meaning of fire and brimstone, as Joseph Smith taught:

“The great misery of [the wicked]… after death, is to know that they come short of the glory that others enjoy and that they might have enjoyed themselves, and they are their own accusers.
“[…] A man is his own tormenter and his own condemner…. The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone” (STPJS, pp. 310-311, 357).

Endeavor with all the faith you can muster, even the smallest grain, to obey the commandments of God, and I can promise you that the knowledge will come, which leads to greater belief, greater faith, and eventually greater knowledge, until you come to eternal life. I make that promise because of the knowledge that I have received from God. The lens of the spirit works. Someday, sooner or later, you will remember it. Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later so that the reception of that memory will be one of joy and not of disappointment.

I ever pray for you as a brother in faith,

—Joseph

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