(This article has been adapted from Darla’s book Trust God No Matter What! To learn more, visit her website darlaisackson.com)
Author Note: Years ago I wrote an article titled, “Can Faith Be a Decision?” that became a chapter in my book Trust God No Matter What. Since then, I’ve changed that question mark to an exclamation point. Faith IS a decision we can choose to make no matter how we feel, a truth that has been taught in many recent conference talks and church lessons.
This is a vital principle to remember during hard times. There are seasons of our spiritual lives when no matter how many scriptures we read, no matter how many prayers we say or temple sessions we attend or how much service we render, we won’t necessarily feel the Spirit, won’t necessarily feel like our faith is real. That’s when we need to remember that building on the foundation of trust, and hanging onto faith (no matter what) is not a function of how we feel or don’t feel (which we can’t always control), but on what we decide (which we can control).
Lately I’ve been in a spiritual slump. Day after day the spiritual feelings haven’t come. I keep wondering what is wrong. I experienced such an outpouring of the Spirit for months after my son’s death, but right now I’m feeling . . . nothing. My last few visits to the temple have been pleasant experiences, but haven’t birthed one spiritual feeling. I continue to read the scriptures, but inexplicably not one verse jumps out at me, not one ah hah! comes, not one spiritual reassurance brings tears of joy.
This morning I awoke with my mind full of possible answers. I suspect that faith is more a decision than a feeling. My feelings are fickle, and can change with the weather, with my level of physical well-being, with the ups and downs of daily life. I may feel some days that my spiritual efforts are fruitless or that the Lord is simply not listening to me, but feelings are not facts. True, the Holy Ghost often speaks through my feelings—but so can the adversary! When I give the voice of the adversary any credence at all, the feelings that result are often discouragement, self-doubt, bitterness, disillusion, and depression.
I have found in my recent circumstance that many times faith is a decision—the only decision that makes any sense. Some days I have made the decision in favor of faith simply because I couldn’t bear the misery of the alternative—the bleak, dark, hopelessness of unbelief. Regardless, I am learning that I can choose in favor of faith no matter how I feel. And that there are hundreds of good reasons to do so!
My feelings may be strongly affected by physical maladies, fatigue, and negative thoughts. But my inner compass, my spirit self is not. I KNOW the gospel is true even when I do not FEEL it, and I KNOW it because I have the witness of countless others, a multitude of spiritual witnesses I have received myself, and a lifetime of evidence from trying an experiment on the word (see Alma 32). The latter is an example of the kind of action that springs from a decision to plant the seeds from which strong faith can grow.
When DOING Must Come Before KNOWING
I recall a character in Gerald Lund’s Work and the Glory series named Will. He struggled for months trying to get his own testimony of the truthfulness of the Church and the Book of Mormon, but felt nothing. Finally, one day he came across a scripture that contained the words, “”If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17). Will pondered the sequence of the words: “Do . . . . and then you shall know. . .” He finally recognized that he had been wanting to KNOW before he made the full effort to DO. But it is so often by the DOING that the KNOWING comes. When Will made the decision to be obedient, to move ahead and DO, the feeling of sure testimony followed soon after.
Following Alma’s advice to DO an experiment on the word (Alma 32:27) is always the best way to learn whether the word is true. I have to plant the seed of faith, than nurture it, before I can feel the seed swelling and growing. (See Alma 32) I have to make the effort, make the decision, otherwise my ground is barren and nothing happens.
Sometimes the doing is simply affirming in the moment what my mind tells me is true and acting on it—regardless of my current feelings or lack thereof. A good example is bearing testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel when prompted. The moment I follow the prompting and stand up, the Holy Ghost increases my feelings of testimony, and I am strengthened.
Corrie Ten Boom learned this principle in a poignant way. I tell the details of her story later in this book, but for purposes of this example, let me explain that she had been brutally treated in a Nazi concentration camp where she and her family were incarcerated for the “crime” of harboring Jews in Holland. When Corrie became a Christian evangelist, one of her former guards came up after she had given a talk on forgiveness. He held out his hand and begged for her forgiveness. Her heart felt cold, like his request was an impossibility, but with a prayer in her heart for the Lord to supply the right feeling, she chose to act: to lift her hand to take the hand of her former guard.. [i] She chose to do the part that she could do. She made a decision in favor of what she knew of faith and trust in the Lord—not what she felt at the moment. The Lord did the rest, answering her prayer to provide the feeling of forgiveness and the joy that comes with that.
Faith, like forgiveness, is not simply an emotion, but often requires of us a decision to act in favor or what we desire before the blessings flow.
Deciding in Favor of Faith
In many gospel settings, we make the decision, and lift our hand to action; then God supplies the power and the attendant positive feelings. “Faith if it hath not works is dead” (James 2:20). Faith truly precedes the miracle, and because of that, faith must often be evidenced by decisions that precede wonderful feelings. I can choose faith, I can consciously decide in favor of faith regardless of my feelings or the circumstances, and if I follow that decision with faithful actions, the feeling of faith usually shows up.
Being Patient with the Process
So today I sit in my pleasant living room typing on my laptop, choosing positive action, choosing faith, even though I don’t feel anything at the moment. I know the sweet assurance of all I’ve felt in the past will eventually show up again.
Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrew 11:1). I’ve often FELT that assurance. I haven’t been feeling it lately. Does that mean the gospel is no longer true? Hardly. It can easily mean that my receiving set is temporarily on the blink. I’ve been fighting a bad cold, I’m worn out physically and emotionally; under those conditions, my receptors may not work as well for receiving spiritual messages. Also, I take responsibility for my own decisions and actions that contribute to the problem. When I’m physically depleted I tend to spend fewer hours keeping myself physically and spiritually fit. When I skip my exercise time, I feel lethargic and sluggish. When I fudge on my scripture study time—reading a quick chapter, but not pondering, not studying it out in my mind or writing about it—I can’t expect the same results as the days when I’m hungering and thirsting for the truths in the scriptures. When I pray more methodically than from the heart because “all the energy of my heart” right now seems greatly restricted by my physical tiredness, I’m not likely to enjoy the same power of the Spirit.
However, just as surely as the tide comes in and goes out again, and day follows night, I will come out of this spiritual slump, as I have many times in the past. In the meantime, I will choose to act upon my lifetime of assurances, remembering all the times I have felt the Spirit, and not on my current weariness and weakness. I will remember times when the Spirit bore witness in an unmistakable way, and reaffirm that those experiences were real and are just as real today. The truths of eternity do not change just because I’m worn out and unreceptive for a while.
The testimony of my head is worth something too. I don’t feel my testimony today, but I affirm it. I choose it, I decide on the basis of a thousand witnesses of credible and honorable people, on the basis of my own experiences in the past to continue to believe, to continue to have faith, to continue to plant the seeds and nurture them and try the experiments on the word. I consciously choose to trust God no matter what. I suspect that IS the most important decision I can make in this life, and I choose to make it.
Just writing this, just saying this is an action of faith and I feel better inside. New seeds are already growing and swelling. I already have evidence of what I cannot see. I don’t particularly feel like praying today, but maybe I can muster the discipline to follow Brigham Young’s advice. He said something like if you do not feel like praying, get on your knees and pray until the spirit of prayer comes back. No tears of joy filled my eyes when I read the scriptures this morning, but I absolutely believe that as I choose to continue to read, I will have that experience again. Who knows, it may be tomorrow!
[i] Corrie Ten Boom, Clippings from My Notebook, 1983, Thorndike Press, 92