Some people cling to elements of their faith as if any threat to it would serve as a death blow to their eternal lives. Like proverbial sand in their hands, they hold it so tight that their grip presses the precious granules through their fingers, and they watch their shifting cargo slip grain-by-grain through their grasp until they finally consider there is not enough to hold, and they let go completely. They are left to wonder how quickly it was lost when they had held on so tight.
A cute animated video series that pokes fun at major Hollywood movies once did a satire of the Blair Witch Project. A famous line from that video is often repeated by my children. In a desire to seek safety, one character implores“Quick, back to the tent!” Another responds sarcastically “Yea, the tent is safe. Nothing can penetrate the NYLON!” My boys always follow such quotes with hearty laughter, unaware of the profound realities exemplified in this humorous poke at a famous horror film. Like those who cling to the sand of faith in their hands, some of us put too much trust in the nylon fabric of some simple element of our faith. We trust in a child like perspective that is thin yet unsustainable under any real threat, seeking the sense of security it once represented for us, unaware that it provides no real protection but only hides from us from what scares us outside.
For the past 15 years I have worked with countless people who, for one reason or another, have struggled with their faith. Some had already left in their hearts, but reached out in a desperate last attempt to regain what had already been released - like the sand that had already slipped through their fingers. Others reach out in response to someone they love who has abandoned what they had once “known”, looking for help to bolster the faith that remained, and give them answer to the criticisms that threaten them. Those who struggle are often in the throes of spiritual agony, looking desperately for the safety of the “tent” that had served as a sense of security in the past.
In contrast, some people manage the nuances and twists and turns of critical information seemingly without the emotional and spiritual knots that become the undoing others. These seem able to navigate these challenges without the compulsion to cling to elements that slip through their fingers, or to seek safety behind a fabric of perception that brings no real safety at all. These are comfortable with the shifting sands of changing perspectives, and are comfortable knowing that, while the tent may represent security, the only real path to safety is not in returning, but in pressing forward.
Faith is a word that by definition includes uncertainty. Alma states plainly that “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” (Alma 32:21). By this we learn that faith demands that we not have proof or evidence demonstrated by our natural senses, but that we persist towards that which cannot be demonstrated by the natural man. In the Lectures on Faith, we read “that faith is the assurance which men have of the existence of things which they have not seen—that is, with their natural eyes—and the principle of action in all intelligent beings.” (Lectures on Faith 1:9). Faith is the power that drives us forward to what is true despite our lack of assurance so often sought by what nature has endowed us withas our senses.
In a similar vein, the exercise of faith, like a muscle, occurs when there is opposition to it. The muscle that is strengthened is the one that persists to perform despite the weight that works against it. This muscle of faith therefore demands that we continue in our belief and hope for that which is true even in the very presence of that which not only fails to confirm our belief, but actually challenges it!
Consider faith in the same light as courage. Does the lion tamer, who raised the deadly giant creature, require courage when putting his head in the mouth of the feline he raised from a cub? Perhaps it requires some, but what about the little old lady in the third row? She knows nothing of the animal, and its propensities. She has only heard its roar, seen its threatening teeth, and shrunk at the glistening muscles that drive it. Ask her to do the same as the lion tamer. Which of these two will show the most courage for the very same act? It is the one who faces the greatest fear! Even so it is with our faith.
Those who know no doubt rely upon faith, but it is exercised most greatly by those who face doubt in large and threatening ways because they actually know less. For these, persistence in behavior – being “faith full” –draws upon their reservoir of trust in God much more so than those whose personality or experience delivers no such doubts.
When I have seen people who were otherwise stalwart in faith shrink in the face of adversity. It is usually because they cling too tightly to some element of belief that itself is not some solid monolith as they might have supposed, but turns out to have shifting elements like sand. As they increase their grip on the granules, the shifting nature lets the grains slip one by one out of their hand until there is not enough for them to hold to.
The actual topics of conversation in this regard could be myriad. It is almost always some teaching that is culturalized such that it becomes unofficially canonized in Mormon lore, or is perhaps something that was once taught and is no longer adhered to. We see this most markedly when the Church changes a policy or decision. Two large examples include the cessation of the practice of polygamy, and the lifting of the restriction of priesthood ordination of people from African ancestry. When polygamy stopped, some people clung to practices of prior years, and could not handle the shifting sands of practice. In the case of the priesthood ban, some could not let go of faulty teachings that sought to justify it, and they abandoned their faith because of it.
People who cling so tightly to teachings and beliefs like this which can change are generally referred to as “fundamentalists”. These are people who cannot manage threats to their faith because of changes to what they had anchored themselves to. They leave no room for ongoing revelation, presuming that what was must always remain. Rather than reconsider their own thinking or assumptions, they conclude that the Church itself has moved away from truth and they find themselves rejecting it all! It is not because they lacked spiritual confirmations of gospel truths, or genuine communication with God. Rather, it is because the changes forced them to re-evaluate their thinking, and forced them to consider their faith all over again. Their assumptions – the grains of fundamental issues in their handful of beliefs – must be reconsidered.