First-person Faith in God
Elder Ronald J. Hammond
Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional
October 2, 2007
As I watched you enter the Hart Building this afternoon, and imagined the same scene in other campus locations, the Spirit confirmed what I already knew, the goodness and depth of devotion of this extraordinary “rising generation.” I am honored to learn with you today and grateful to President Clark and his associates for this privilege. Please know that I deeply sense both the joy and the responsibility appropriate for someone in this position on this occasion.
In courts of law, a first-person witness is always preferred. The testimony of one who was there, saw it, heard it, and remembers is a powerful witness. So too in matters of faith. Second-person faith is good. For instance, “You know God will help you,” Third-person faith is also good. For example, “They know the Lord will bless them.” But, however good they may be, second and third-person faith are not enough. Faith in God, on the first-person level is essential now and will be increasingly so in days to come.
You may know. He, she, or it may be sure. But, unless I know and until I am sure, I remain vulnerable to doubt and despair.
HELP THOU MY UNBELIEF – A CALL FOR FIRST-PERSON FAITH
To the Master, one of the multitude brought his son, his only child, who was afflicted with a dumb spirit.1 The father explained to Jesus that this evil spirit had often cast his boy into the fire and into the waters to destroy him. Then, with all the tenderness of an emotionally wrung out parent, the father pleaded, “if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.” Note that he said, “us.”
This was not simply an issue with the lad. No, this was an entire family in distress. Can you even begin to imagine the stigma levied against this boy and his parents? – neighbors warning their children not to go near that house because that is where “you know who” lives. Ostracism and exclusion everywhere they went and biting remarks on every hand.
We don’t know where the mother was on this occasion. Maybe she had had all she could take. Perhaps she simply could not bring herself to face one more glare of scorn or one more word of derision. We don’t know those details but we do know that the father was not seeking help for the boy alone but for “us,” the whole little family of three.
Jesus said, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And “straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’”
I have pondered much on this father’s cry of the soul. It is a paradox. “I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” What does it mean? While I am sure there are other ways of explaining it, it has been helpful to me to think of the father’s reply in terms of “generalized” versus “personal” faith.
“Jesus, I believe thou art all-powerful. Thou canst make the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the lame to walk…and thou hast done so. Thou canst calm tempests, command the elements, and raise the dead to life…and thou hast done so. Thou art the sovereign God of the universe and canst do all things for other people in other circumstances. But…Jesus, I know my boy. Can you really pull this one off for us?”
Like so many then and so many now, the father of the boy had generalized faith in Jesus’ love and unlimited power. He knew that the “Master of ocean and earth and skies” could, generally speaking, command and calm in order to bless the general masses; but could he really, might he actually, deliver this seemingly insignificant little threesome from a life of perpetual despair?
FIRST-PERSON FAITH DEVELOPMENT - 4 PRINCIPLES
Progression from “I believe” – generally speaking to, “Help thou mine unbelief” – personally speaking is the substance of our devotional walk together this afternoon…a walk on the path called, “First-person faith in God.”
It is a worthy and timely subject for our discussion. As children of Zion, we know something about adversity in days to come. The prophetic word clearly confirms that evil opposition will grow in intensity and sophistication. The same Spirit that speaks of things as they really are and as they really will be2 also warns that, whatever our level of faith may be today, it will not be sufficient to meet tomorrow’s demands. Our faith must grow steadily…and it must be personalized – my faith in my God.
May I share with you four principles regarding the development of first-person faith in Christ? As I speak, the Holy Ghost will teach you. Please write down any impressions you may receive. Some will assure you are doing well and others may suggest a change or two. Will you please join me in inviting the Holy Ghost to give each of us that portion that will be of most help?
Principle 1: Developing first-person faith in God refers to a process.
Principle 2: Developing first-person faith in God requires personal involvement.
Principle 3: Developing first-person faith in God involves remembering Jesus always.
Principle 4: Developing first-person faith in God matures into doubt not, fear not, only believe.
PRINCIPLE 1: DEVELOPING FIRST-PERSON FAITH IN GOD REFERS TO A PROCESS.
The oil of first-person faith is added to our lamps drop by drop. It is a process not an event, and if you understand and really believe this, then you will move with surprising serenity through life’s experiences that do not turn out as you had planned.
What happens, for instance, when you desperately want to be delivered from a trial, and you pray and fast and ratchet up your worthiness – but nothing? At such times, brothers and sisters, knowing that faith development is a process, will let you let the process take its course. Otherwise, impatience might persuade you to make some well meaning but very foolish demands of God. Consider, for example, the “Parable of the Impatient Expectant.”
The woman learned she was going to have her first baby. She and her husband were overjoyed with the prospects of becoming parents.
With each passing day, the young wife became more anxious for the baby’s arrival. During the day she would imagine and during the night she would dream of how it would be to hold and love and nurture her little one.
Two months into the pregnancy she went to see her doctor. She explained that she simply could not stand the waiting any longer, and insisted that he deliver the baby that very day. The doctor kindly refused explaining that were he to do so, it would be abortion, not delivery. The woman understood, continued to wait, to learn, to grow, and in due time her baby was born.
Your delivery from trial is important to Heavenly Father but so too is the growth you make while awaiting that relief. If all deliveries came immediately upon demand, the process of developing first-person faith would be aborted.
To the impatient mother-to-be and to all of us who want God to deliver according to our terms and timing, Paul wisely counsels, “For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.”3
Understanding that faith development is a process gives staying power in times of adversity. The natural man is an enemy to God as well as to God’s plans for our development. Little wonder that murmuring is so prevalent. It is so popular because it is so natural. Like Laman and Lemuel, when one does not understand the dealings of that God who created him, grumbling is inevitable. God is working to develop the man’s faith – here a trial, there an adversity – but all the natural man sees is God repeatedly picking on him.
True disciples on the other hand know that “charging God foolishly” will abort the faith development process and so meekly allow the process to continue. They understand that as long as they obediently seek the Lord’s will, seeming setbacks can actually be steps forward in their faith development. Like the man who is asked to move back one seat in a bus that is speeding forward on the freeway. Inside the bus, it looks like a move backward, but observing the bus from a distance, the man’s forward progress is clearly evident.
Naaman4, the leprous captain of the Syrian host was insulted when the Lord’s prophet told him to dip seven times in the River Jordan to be healed. Persuaded by his servants, however, Naaman relented and obeyed. Healing did not occur with the first dip but Naaman did not let the disappointment of the moment abort possibilities for the future. And so, he continued the process. Naaman’s objective was to heal his skin. The Lord’s objective was to grow his faith. And, for Naaman, both objectives were met. The now healed Syrian became also the now converted Syrian exclaiming, “Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel.”
As he did with Naaman, the Lord will invite you to experience life’s challenges in order to grow your faith. Occasionally you will be tempted to abort the process when you meet with multiple disappointments. At such times, please, be of good cheer and meekly allow the process to continue. Your objective is to get through the trial. The Lord’s objective is to grow your faith. And both objectives can be met.
PRINCIPLE 2: DEVELOPING FIRST-PERSON FAITH IN GOD REQUIRES PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT.
Faith without works is dead – and the works cannot be vicarious. Even for Nephi of old, whose very name many of us equate with faith in God, first-person faith could only be developed through first-hand works. With heaven expecting him to build a ship, Nephi’s faith in God could not have grown with him in a hammock and Sam and Jacob doing all the work. Nephi, himself, had to be personally involved in building the ship, sunburn, wood splinters, and all.
Surely the Lord could have had a fine ocean-worthy ship waiting for Lehi’s family when they came to the ocean shore. But He did not. Then, as always, personal faith needs personal involvement to grow. Note in the following verses5, Nephi’s generous use of first-person pronouns:
Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me…
And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.
Nephi’s faith grew with each construction problem that was solved and with every step of progress that was made. That is the essence, the very essence, of the Lord’s drop by drop, line upon line pattern. The end result was not just a sea-worthy ship of inspired design, but a disciple of Christ with faith equal to escalating stewardship demands.
Nephi’s brothers could lean on Nephi’s “involvement” for a while, but there came a time when they had to enter the very personal process of growing first-person faith. And in this instance, they did. And when the ship was all done, Nephi said, “My brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord.”6 Laman and Lemuel’s personal involvement led to first-person faith—in boat building. Alas, had they only been as personally involved in prayer and obedience as they were with measuring and sawing wood!
Brothers and sisters, you will hear faith-promoting stories about others. That will inspire you. You will see the Lord’s hand working wonders in the lives of others. That will encourage you. But, I witness that the saving kind of faith in Christ is a very personal, sweetly private, first-person kind of faith developed only “in the process” of personal involvement in life’s challenges.
To those who went before us, we owe so very much. What strength is ours today because of the faith of our fathers and our mothers too, for we do not doubt that our mothers knew it!7 Now, may your individual demonstrations of faith be such that when your relatives in yet to come generations sing, “Faith of our fathers, living still,”8 they will be referring to you and your steadfast “first-person” faith in the Savior.
PRINCIPLE 3: DEVELOPING FIRST-PERSON FAITH IN GOD INVOLVES REMEMBERING JESUS ALWAYS.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are under covenant with the Father to always remember His Son, Jesus Christ.9 One of the many compelling reasons for doing so is that it is essential to an ever-growing first-person faith in the Lord.
Again, we turn to the Book of Mormon for examples. Who can forget Nephi’s extraordinary demonstration of faith when his murderous brothers tried to throw him into the ocean? Unflinching, Nephi stood his ground and said, in so many words, “touch me, you die.” And then this unparalleled expression of first-person faith saturated with first-person pronouns.
And I said unto them; If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done.10
How did Nephi do that? Where did he get such great faith? Brothers and sisters, he did it in the very same way that you have and will yet do it. He remembered Jesus. When Nephi’s brothers refused to help him build the ship, he began to speak to them.11 Now, he did not know that Laman and Lemuel would try to kill him just 25 verses later, but the Lord did and he bolstered Nephi’s faith so it would be sufficient when the crisis came.
One after another, the Holy Ghost brought to Nephi’s mind a virtual cascade of past experiences wherein the Lord saved and strengthened those in need. Israel delivered out of bondage, the Red Sea parted, Israel saved – Pharaoh’s armies drowned, manna from heaven, water from a rock, day cloud, night pillar, cure for fiery serpent venom, and on and on, one faith-building memory of Jesus after another. Then, when the moment of need came, Nephi and his bolstered faith were ready.
Please note however, that something happened, had to happen, in Nephi’s mind to connect God’s involvement in ancient Israel’s lives to Nephi’s present circumstances. This was the connection, “And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many mighty miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship?”12 Nephi went from remembering what God did for others, all the way to trusting He’ll do the same for me!
When life’s challenges bear down upon you, it is not enough to know that Jesus saved ancient Israel and Nephi or that he helped your classmate or roommate. I know that you know that your Redeemer lives must progress to, “I know that my Redeemer lives! Then, when you hear Jesus say, “Peace, be still!”13 you will know he is talking to your own personal storms and not just in generalities.
But there is another very compelling reason to remember Jesus always and it has everything to do with the inner peace for which every one of us, whether we know it or not, is yearning.
The Bible Dictionary teaches, “Faith must be centered in Jesus Christ in order to produce salvation. To have faith is to have confidence in something or someone. The Lord has revealed himself and his perfect character…so as to enable the mind of man to place confidence in him without reservation.”14
Remembering Jesus keeps us focused on the Redeemer of Israel, on whom for a blessing we can confidently call.15 Otherwise, when we slip slightly – or crash terribly – we will look in vain for the Deliverer because he is far from the thoughts and intents of our hearts.16 In moments of spiritual alarm, when we cry out for help, we will reflexively direct that cry to Christ…if… we have been remembering him always.
Brothers and sisters, the bridegroom does come quickly…and repeatedly in our lives. An unexpected illness, death of a loved one, poor test grade, frustrated relationship, rejection to graduate school, and more…on such occasions the oil of first-person faith in God must already be in our lamps. Where, when my aching grows, where is my solace? We will know, instinctively we will know, where and who our solace is…because we have been thinking about Jesus; because we have been remembering him always.
Our remembering, like our faith, must be centered in Jesus Christ if it is to bring us the peace that we seek.
In the aftermath of sin, Alma the Younger was spiritually going under. In his moment of greatest alarm when this very young and very frightened prodigal needed help like he had never needed it before, his first-person faith in Christ was awakened by a first-person memory of his father’s teachings of Jesus.17
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me…
And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
Young Alma gained a first-person faith that there is a Deliverer in Israel. Alma also learned first-hand that when he remembered Jesus always, he remembered former guilt never. How priceless a truth for all who sin. The Father commands us to repent and remember His Son always, knowing that, a memory of Jesus will crowd out a memory of guilt. How gentle God’s command – indeed!
PRINCIPLE 4: DEVELOPING FIRST-PERSON FAITH IN GOD MATURES INTO DOUBT NOT, FEAR NOT, ONLY BELIEVE.
Alma counseled his son Helaman, “look to God and live.”18 On a first-person level, look to God in every thought, for everything. Turn your life and everything about it over to Father. Look to Him, doubt not, fear not19, only believe.
I have pondered much about why Alma would say to Helaman, and not his other two sons, “look to God and live.” It seems significant that this is the same Helaman who, just eight years or so later would lead a little rag-tag band of 2000 believing boys to war.20
Each boy would survive because of first-person faith. Each had to know that God would preserve him if he looked to God and did not doubt. Each had to know he must obey with exactness. And when he, scarcely knowing one end of a sword from another, lunged into battle, each boy had to yield his fears to God. It was just that literal, “look to God…and live or look elsewhere…and die.
And who was their leader? Who helped them develop first-person faith in God? It was Helaman who was looking to God in every thought, doubting not and fearing not – because the prophet had told him to.
When we look to God, we yield to Him everything – our fears, our doubts, and our own stern preferences, with the meek entreaty, “Thy will, not mine be done.”
And brothers and sisters, it really should be a cheerful yielding of the heart. Our submission should not be a grumpy “giving up” to the universal superpower who is going to win the arm wrestle anyway. But rather a joyful yielding because we know that what God wants is truly the best thing that could ever happen to us. Therefore, when grappling with life’s heavy-weight trials, don’t yell “uncle!”— just pray, “Father!”
This comes easily, even naturally, when the steps ahead are well lit and clearly marked. But, for faith to grow, some things must, for now, remain unseen. What then, do you do when the next step of the trial as well as the duration and outcome of the trial are hidden? You obey God, doubt not, fear not, only believe.
The scriptures are filled with experiences wherein prophets and disciples struggled to develop first-person faith in God in the face of stifling unknowns. How much easier it would have been had they known, while in the furnace, how things would eventually turn out.
For example, look with me down the long corridor of time. We see Father Abraham21 preparing, as God had commanded, to sacrifice his only begotten son, Isaac – hot tears matching the heat of the fiery trial. Then, as he raises the sacrificial dagger, you and I call to him down through the millennia, “Abraham, O Abraham, don’t worry. It’s all going to be just fine! See, I have the book! I know how this story ends! Abraham, hang in there, don’t give up!” But Abraham, in the thick of developing first-person faith cannot, must not, hear us. It must be just Abraham and God. Then, after the fiery trial of his faith, the miracle occurs, we sigh with relief, and Abraham becomes not only the father of millions, but the father of the faithful as well.
And what about those 2000 Lamanite youth under Helaman’s command –youth near the age of many of you? The most powerful army of the Lamanites pursues them for a couple of days then silence. And then the terrible questions must be answered, questions like: “Do we turn back to help Antipus? And, is it an ambush? And, could you show me again how to hold a cimeter?” Back they go, this little band that never before has fought an enemy. And we call down the corridor of time, “Hello! You are going to win and not one of you will be killed! Here, read Alma chapters 56 through 58. We love you! Thanks for your examples. Remember, your team wins!” But, again, they cannot, must not, hear us. It must be each youth and his God. Only after the trial of their first-person faith was it written, “And now, their preservation was astonishing to our whole army, yea, that they should be spared while there was a thousand of our brethren who were slain. And we do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God, because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe.”22
Looking down the shorter corridor of more recent history, we see pioneers struggling through unimaginable hardships trekking westward to their beloved Zion.
Thirteen-year-old Mary Goble of the Hunt wagon company had already lost two younger sisters and a younger brother on the journey. As she and the rest of her family neared the Salt Lake Valley, her mother slipped away also. They arrived in Salt Lake City on December 11, 1856.
Mary wrote in her journal, “three out of the four that were living were frozen. My mother was dead in the wagon. When Brigham Young came in, he shook hands with all of us. When he saw our condition, our feet frozen and our mother dead, tears rolled down his cheeks. The doctor wanted to cut my feet off at the ankles, but President Young said, ‘No, just cut off the toes and I promise you that you will never have to take them off any farther,’…The doctor amputated my toes using a saw and a butcher knife. That afternoon, my mother was buried.”23
But it wasn’t over. Mary married Richard Pay whose wife and baby girl had died on the westward trek. They had 13 children, three of whom died very young. After 21 years of marriage, and still with little children to care for, Mary’s oldest son died. One year later her husband passed away and the following year another son died. She lived another twenty years as a widow.
And we, through our tears, call down that corridor of years and cry with all the compassion within us, “Mary, O Mary, don’t give up. It’s all going to work out. We know the rest of the story! One of your grandchildren will be Marjorie Pay Hinckley, wife of a mighty prophet of God. O Mary, listen to his words about you.”
This is…a marvelous but simple faith, an unquestioning conviction that the God of Heaven in his power will make all things right and bring to pass his eternal purposes in the lives of his children.
We need so very, very much a strong burning of that faith in the living God and in his living, resurrected Son, for this was the great moving faith of our gospel forebears….With faith they sought to do his will. With faith they read and accepted divine teaching. With faith they labored until they dropped, always with a conviction that there would be an accounting to him who was their Father and their God.24
“Mary, your story of faith will live on. The husband of your granddaughter will become the prophet whose words, “It will all work out,” will give hope to millions of us in our own trek through life.
But Mary, with dying mother and siblings and frozen toes cannot hear us. Mary, living in unspeakable poverty and losing two sons and a husband in three years, must not hear us. Through her wine press circumstances wherein her first-person faith was born and nurtured, Mary Pay would learn to lean on the Lord and submit her will to his…a true life drama with but one cast member and one director. It had to be just Mary and her Father in Heaven.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow.
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.25
PERSONAL APPLICATION OF FIRST-PERSON FAITH
As it was Mary Pay, with Abraham, with Helaman’s 2000, and with so many, many others of whom we read in scriptures and journals, so it will and must be with you. In your own wine press encounters, you must do as Elder Henry B. Eyring counseled missionaries in Reynosa, Mexico, “Trust the Lord, get some sleep, and wake up happy.” Sooner or later, and better sooner than later, you will learn to “trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding”26….and to let him direct your paths.
And when life’s trials become particularly challenging, then listen. Can you hear you—talking to you? From a point years in the future, you call back down the corridor of time to you here in October 2007. “Hey me, that’s right you. Pretty tough right now is it? O, don’t give up. Hang in there. Trust the Lord, get some sleep and wake up happy. It will all work out. See! I’ve got the book! I know what happens next. My past is still your future and I know everything will be just fine. Believe you…me!”
Here and now in the thick of first-person faith things, you are not allowed to know how or when things will turn out…just that they will. For now, it is enough to submit eagerly to Him whose ways, ideas, and power are higher, brighter and mightier than your own,
“Where can I turn for peace? Who can understand?”27 The Lord is very concerned about how we answer these hymnal questions and so should we. Our first-person faith depends on our answering them correctly. “He only” is the only right answer.
Developing first-person faith in God then:
Refers to a process
Requires personal involvement
Involves remembering Jesus always
Matures into doubt not, fear not, only believe.
Brothers and sisters, you will not need to wait long before you have occasion to apply these principles. Today, sometime after you leave devotional and before you fall off to sleep tonight, you will likely have one experience, or several, that will let you know Father in Heaven is at work helping your first-person faith to grow. Maybe a small trial, maybe a major challenge, either way, you will be asked to look to Him, to doubt not, to fear not, and to let Him direct your life’s course. In a world where sorrow ever will be known, look up my soul is very good advice. Look up to God and live!
Faith in Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel.28 And it is the first, “first-person” principle as well. First-person faith in God will move you past His generalized interest in humanity to an assurance of His first-person involvement in all of the first-person ups and downs of your life.
I commend each of you for what you do and for who you are. You are accomplishing much through your faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. Much will yet be asked of you that will require ever-increasing reserves of first-person faith. I testify that God lives. He is worthy of our unrestricted trust and is mighty to make good on all his promises. With all my soul, I witness that His Son, Jesus Christ lives. He is our Savior and Redeemer. He is, for you and me and all others, now and forever, the deserving focus of our first-person faith.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1 Mark 9:17-24
2 Jacob 4:13
3 Hebrews 10:36
4 2 Kings 5:1-15
5 1 Nephi 18:2-3 (emphasis added)
6 Ibid; 18:4
7 Alma 56:48
8 “Faith of Our Fathers,” Hymns, #84
9 3 Nephi 18:7,11
10 1 Nephi 17:50 (emphasis added)
11 1 Nephi 17:23-47
12 1 Nephi 17:51 (emphasis added)
13 Mark 4:39
14 BD; p. 669
15 “Redeemer of Israel” Hymns, #6
16 Mosiah 5:13
17 Alma 36:17-19 (emphasis added)
18 Alma 37:47
19 D&C 6:36
20 Alma’s counsel to Helaman in Alma 36 took place in the 18th year of the reign of the judges (see Alma
35:12). Helaman assumed leadership of the 2000 Lamanite youth in the 26th year of the reign of the
judges as recorded in Alma 56:9.
21 Genesis 22:1-18
22 Alma 57:26
23 Andrew D. Olsen, The Price We Paid, pp. 438-39.
24 As quoted in The Price We Paid, p. 442
25 “How Firm a Foundation,” Hymns, #85; 4th verse. (emphasis added)
26 Proverbs 3:5
27 “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” Hymns, #129
28 Articles of Faith #4; See also BD, p. 670, second paragraph
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