Balancing the Discussion: Faith in Christ

by: jmb275

September 14, 2011

Because I have had my own trials of faith, and have stood in the figurative shoes of those who see things from a non-believing standpoint, I have become increasingly aware of the language we use and the ways in which it contributes to our cultural peculiarities and often times sets people up for failure. Sometimes people genuinely deconstruct each aspect of their faith and nothing can be done to bring them back. But many times I am convinced that if we merely modified our rhetoric and vernacular surrounding various topics, we could prevent much of the cultural baggage we carry, and move toward an appropriate inoculation of “hard” realities that often become stumbling blocks later on.

One important topic that was recently taught in our ward is faith in Christ. In our YoungMen’s lesson we discussed what it means to have faith in Christ, and what blessings can come from exercising faith and obedience to Christ. Some of these blessings took the form of stories about miraculous healings from a priesthood blessing. Near the end of the lesson, the instructor bore his testimony of the atonement. At this point he also shared that he “knew that Christ saw each of their (the young men’s) faces, and understood the burdens of each one of us as he accomplished the atonement.”

It is no doubt important to bear testimony, and it is no doubt critical to discuss faith in Christ. Faith in Christ has power to heal us spiritually, and has power to move us to action. Additionally, faith is a complex topic, not easily defined or understood. Nevertheless, it is a rich topic that has much to offer us in the real world of our everyday lives without the need for perpetuating a magical worldview. It is certainly possible that Christ saw my face and yours as he completed the atonement, but there isn’t any scriptural support (or prophetic that I know of) for such a statement. It is also possible that people have been literally healed by a priesthood blessing. But it’s an empirical reality that people of many faiths believe they have been healed in a similar way.

It might seem like I’m being overly dramatic here. After all, it’s a small statement, by an innocent young men’s instructor – certainly not a revelation of any sort. The problem is that this is a larger systemic problem of careless language that, rather than being couched in reality with an emphasis on technical precision of communication and presentation, seeks to create an emotional response by appealing to our magical worldview and credulity. It seeks to promote faith by aggrandizement rather than a deep abiding confidence that one’s chosen path draw them nearer to God.

The punchline is that this is what ends up destroying faith because its inaccuracy is surely to be discovered in short order. It seems to me that in the past, our approach has been to try and suppress the discovery that similar pronouncements (whatever they may be) were inaccurate. As has been pointed out by such heavy hitters as Dan Peterson, and Richard Bushman it is necessary to be accurate and completely forthcoming in the first place to avoid the feeling of being “lied to.”

In these cases I think there are small changes in our language that could treat topics with all the sacredness and seriousness they deserve without setting us up for disappointment. In this particular case, I think faith in Christ can be a springboard for a discussion into Maxwellian true discipleship, as a motivating factor for caring for our fellows, and perhaps most importantly putting ourselves in their shoes to avoid unrighteous judgment and the beam/mote paradigm. Why not present a lesson about small changes the young men can make to show gratitude to their parents or leaders? Or what about a lesson on how our faith in Jesus Christ should govern how we treat the inactive young man who comes to church to pass the sacrament in a mohawk, jeans, and t-shirt? After all, it is the implementation of faith translated to action stemming from knowledge that produces true discipleship:

One mistake we can make during this mortal experience is to value knowledge apart from the other qualities to be developed in submissive discipleship. Knowledge—discovery, its preservation, its perpetuation—is very important. Yet, being knowledgeable while leaving undeveloped the virtues of love, mercy, meekness, and patience is not enough for full discipleship. Mere intellectual assent to a truth deprives us of the relevant, personal experiences that come from applying what we profess to believe. There were probably orientation briefings in the premortal world about how this mortal life would unfold for us, but the real experience is another thing!

Thus, while knowledge is clearly very important, standing alone it cannot save us. I worry sometimes that we get so busy discussing the doctrines in various Church classes that talking about them almost becomes a substitute for applying them. One cannot improve upon the sobering words of King Benjamin, who said, “Now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them” (Mosiah 4:10). Such is still the test. Deeds, not words—and becoming, not describing—are dominant in true discipleship.  – Neal A. Maxwell, Becoming a Disciple

Virtually all groups redefine words and/or create language to solidify the group and help identify insiders and outsiders. It’s natural that Mormonism has developed such a paradigm as well. But I think the long term damage it can cause is serious and unnecessary. We can teach lessons that maintain scriptural and historical integrity, and still deepen our faith in the Gospel. As an added bonus, I think as we shift our language and rhetoric to be more true to real life with greater scriptural and historical precision, we will find it easier to apply Gospel principles to our everyday lives in a way that can help us draw nearer to God.

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19 Responses to Balancing the Discussion: Faith in Christ

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 14, 2011 at 6:17 AM

    I agree with so much of this, that it is hard to disagree at all, except that some people just do not seem mature enough for it, others seem born that way (able to understand).

    I’m not a big fan of magical world views, thinking of them as sorcery, my wife less so (she likes them less than I do). I like the thought of focusing more on Christ and less on illusion, though it is hard, sometimes, for some people to understand the difference.

    Thank you for sharing this.

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  2. hawkgrrrl on September 14, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    Personally, I think this is what is meant by seeking for a sign: people who want “proof” or are impressed by fancy faith-promoting stories that are not necessarily based in anything other than someone’s desire and emotion. I see so many members at church who fall into this trap of trying to prove that the church is true that they forget the more important part, actually applying the principles of the gospel.

    A decades old example that will nonetheless be familiar to many was a young teacher in a RS lesson who cited a story from Paul H. Dunn (the one where the bullet is stopped by the BOM in the soldier’s pocket – lifted straight from Catholic glurge in fact). This was right around the time when it had come to light that Paul H. Dunn’s stories were embellished. This sister gushed with teary eyes that this story was proof that the church was true. I raised my hand to make it clear that this story was not true, that he had admitted it wasn’t. She just blinked at me as if I were speaking in tongues and then continued to bear testimony of this story as if I hadn’t said anything. Some people can’t handle the truth.

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  3. Jeff Spector on September 14, 2011 at 7:45 AM

    I really like the post. I think it provokes some thoughts in me.

    I know that I am among those which want us to focus more on Christ, but I wonder sometimes if that is my own excuse for actually saying: “I want you to talk about more things that I am interested in.”

    Specifically, discussing about Christ to me mean three things: Atonement, commandments (which are both personal and inward) and Charity (which is to others and outward).

    So any discussion of those topics is a discussion on Christ. May not always seem directly related, but it is.

    Addressing the YM leader and his comment. Since we are taught that Heavenly Father and Jesus know of us personally and that Jesus took upon Him the sins of all the world, it is not that far off to make the comment the YM made. Does he really know that for a fact? No, probably not, unless the Savior told him personally. but it was merely a reenforcement of the doctrine that Our Father and His Son know us personally.

    Let’s not confuse Bushman and Peterson talking about being accurate about Church History with Church Doctrine. There is much more speculation on doctrine because we know so little in reality about the eternities.

    When folks separate themselves from the Church, it is typically about the Church Organization, the Church Leadership or some truth claim about the restoration, the earthly part, if you will. They seem not to be able to separate that from the Doctrine of Christ or the spiritual part. And end up giving up on both.

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  4. hawkgrrrl on September 14, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    My bias is also showing as I am often turned off by the weepy emotional stuff at church which seems manipulative to me; I prefer the practical.

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  5. Jeff Spector on September 14, 2011 at 7:53 AM

    Hawk,

    “She just blinked at me as if I were speaking in tongues and then continued to bear testimony of this story as if I hadn’t said anything. Some people can’t handle the truth.’

    The sad truth is that sometimes faith-promoting stories are folks basis for faith rather than a nice story reinforcing their faith.

    I think about the statement BRM made in his last talk. That he wouldn’t know any better that Jesus was the Christ when he met him on the other side than he did at that moment. That is real faith, not based on a story, that turns out not even to be true.

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  6. jmb275 on September 14, 2011 at 8:24 AM

    Re Hawk-

    Personally, I think this is what is meant by seeking for a sign: people who want “proof” or are impressed by fancy faith-promoting stories that are not necessarily based in anything other than someone’s desire and emotion.

    Yeah, the real issue I see each week is that we train our youth to be sign-seekers in this way. We raise them to relish in these stories and then we blow a gasket when they feel “lied to” later on. They’re a product of our culture.

    Re Jeff-

    So any discussion of those topics is a discussion on Christ. May not always seem directly related, but it is.

    Agreed. Any of those topics are excellent.

    Addressing the YM leader and his comment. Since we are taught that Heavenly Father and Jesus know of us personally and that Jesus took upon Him the sins of all the world, it is not that far off to make the comment the YM made. Does he really know that for a fact? No, probably not, unless the Savior told him personally. but it was merely a reenforcement of the doctrine that Our Father and His Son know us personally.

    But this is the very point. Why say it in the first place? Note that even if you’re right, and it reenforces the doctrine that God and Christ know us personally, do you think it really helped the YM to feel that truth, or modify behavior to be more in line with that doctrine? I’m not convinced of the utility of the statement at all. The real converting power is in the spirit which is an experiential convincing agent.

    OTOH, what I meant to put in the post, and didn’t get to it, is the following testimony on this topic (pay careful attention to the language here since that’s really my point):

    In my life, faith in Jesus Christ has helped me overcome natural tendencies that might damage my own life or the life of others. Having faith in Christ motivates me to see others through the lens of compassion and empathy. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt before judging them, and I try to see the heart that the Lord sees in them. I have felt my burdens lifted as I exercised faith in the atonement and have repented. I believe that as we use our faith in Christ to help us become more like Him, we will be happier and be better examples of our beliefs and faith.

    Let’s not confuse Bushman and Peterson talking about being accurate about Church History with Church Doctrine. There is much more speculation on doctrine because we know so little in reality about the eternities.

    Indeed! Absolutely. To me, this makes the case even stronger. If there’s even more we don’t know, then let us turn away from speculation and story telling and talk about what is real and undisputed – personal experience, self-improvement, behavior, etc. And the thing most baffling to me is that real life is tragic, complex, inspiring, and beautiful. There is PLENTY to talk about without appealing to a magical worldview. But we have to learn to couch our language in reality.

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  7. Jeff Spector on September 14, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    JMB,

    Thanks for the reply. we are in agreement here!

    “The real converting power is in the spirit which is an experiential convincing agent.

    I get that. And ultimately, I’d rather teach the YM that then fill there heads with stories and things they find out not to be quite so true or completely not true. My wife gets mad at me for making comments to her in Sacrament Meeting when “one of those stories” gets told and I lean over and whisper, “yeah, right” in her ear. but yet, I can also be quite moved by some of them. I hope that is the spirit whispering to me.

    I also appreciate the fact that our belief system all stems from our faith in Christ. It should be the guiding light in our life.

    “There is PLENTY to talk about without appealing to a magical worldview. But we have to learn to couch our language in reality.”

    Ummm, I am not into magical worldviews but doctrinal speculation as part of our search for understanding is OK for me. Taking a gospel principle and extrapolating it is useful in trying to the fully comprehend the idea and where it could lead. Most is done with the “what happens after we die” subject.

    Reading Orson Pratt’s “The Seer” is a mind-blowing experience because he takes things way out there.

    Of course, we should never preach those things as truth, only speculative idea for the sake of discussion. I don’t see anything wrong with that in the right context. YM/YW or primary is probably not the right place.

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  8. John on September 14, 2011 at 9:09 AM

    In relation to your comment on other people healing or claiming being healed, while members claim that priesthood blessings are doing the healing inside of the church… I think there’s a compelling discussion to be had on how the Priesthood (capital ‘P’, in Mormonism) has tried to co-opt Faith.

    There are inherent differences between Faith + Priesthood, but everything we describe as happening via the Priesthood is much more likely to be happening through Faith.

    As stated elsewhere:

    Everything we’d attribute to priesthood – all the blessings, miracles, and so on – are purely the result of faith, of our acting as if something were real and true, and so the results are fooled into existence. The priesthood has tried to gain market share over faith, and that’s how we know it’s a false thing. It’s a drama, a test, a stage, all the world, as someone once said. So we can call the fruits of faith “priesthood” power, and we can name a group of guys “the priesthood,” who are, at times, good men who enjoy the fruits of the Spirit, and those fruits of faith, irrespective of priesthood. In other words, as a test, we can abuse priesthood, but the consequences of abuse, outlined in D&C 121, do not readily follow here, because it is a test. You see, that is the grace given to mortals. But we’re just fooling ourselves, sometimes devils and imps of lesser understanding are fooled too. But not really fooling Heaven with all our fakery, advertising, and PR.

    As to the other stuff, I didn’t really notice the propensity Mormons have at the “magical worldview” until I had my own crises and felt much less attached to the Church, while still holding on to various aspects of Mormonism. Members – especially family members – would dismiss many of my questions or comments and reply with a bearing of their testimony, sometimes through tears. I don’t doubt that they felt something (who knows what), but it was a signal to me about a much deeper issue – namely that we attach emotional responses as proof of something (i.e. crying elicits a certain response) and all it did for me was turn me off. It was as if I couldn’t have a discussion, ask questions or discuss the gospel in greater detail without someone trying to correct my behavior through a bearing down of testimony and crying.

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  9. Ray on September 14, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Amen!

    That’s all for now.

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  10. Carson N on September 14, 2011 at 7:22 PM

    In order to have any kind of literal belief in the church you have to partially base your beliefs on a certain amount of speculation in order to tie the vague correlated stuff together into a consistent whole. It’s hard to ask people to keep the speculation separate from the other positive, behavioral-focused stuff because they’re so intertwined into people’s testimonies. My dad, for example, loves to speculate about the afterlife and what we’ll be doing there. I have to admit I find his idea of the afterlife to be pretty neat, and it certainly comes out in his testimony. Afterlife speculation is fairly safe compared to other kinds because of it’s untouchability, but there are so many believers whose testimonies are tangled up in stories and speculations that range from harmless to provably fraudulent. These people are told — commanded, even — to bear their testimonies with full confidence to those that they teach. They’re not going to hold back on the speculative stuff with necessary connects the correlated stuff together.

    So you have Sis Ruth over here telling the primary kids that baptism washes away the sins you commit before 8 years of age and from then on you have to repent for each one, and you have Bro Rufus over there telling the deacons that they will eventually be able to clearly discern a literal voice in their head that is the Holy Ghost. Bishop Jones tells the ward that God saved his family from burning death on the highway once. Everyone has their own way of tying everything together, and thought it is often demonstrably inconsistent and under-thought, it is preached as “I would not know this any more than I know now if the veil were lifted”.

    This becomes a problem for people like me, who see all the inconsistencies handed to them as truth over a lifetime of church membership, which drives them to a full reexamination of the church and their beliefs with the potential realization that there is no “there” there, and there never was since the beginning.

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  11. Geoff - A on September 15, 2011 at 7:07 AM

    Two questions strike me reguarding the original teaching, and testimony bearing.

    Did Christ, presumably in the Garden of Gethsemane, review each of the young men and their problems. Did he do the other 12 billion or so people who have lived on the earth, or just the Mormons , or just the males? If he spent 1 second each on the 12 billion it would take 380 years. Do young men think like this? I did at that age, and obviously still do.
    Wasn’t the atonement an infinite atonement not a cumulative individual problems atonement? I once taught that the atonement was infinite and upset a sister who wanted the Saviour to have felt the abuse she suffered.
    I agree that tearful testimonies seem to trump anything, but other churches do tearful testimonies too.
    We recently had our young men do mini missions for a week and they were asked to report in Sac meeting, three of them bore wonderful testimonies with varying degrees of tears. The fourth said it was Ok but he didn’t feel any great spiritual uplift or anything. I congratulated him for his honesty and told him some of us remain strong without the spiritual experiences others recount.
    There does not seem to be a fall back position for those who don’t get answers to prayer or spiritual manifestations, real or otherwise.
    Was that 2, I lost count?

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  12. Jeff Spector on September 15, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    Carson N.

    “In order to have any kind of literal belief in the church you have to partially base your beliefs on a certain amount of speculation in order to tie the vague correlated stuff together into a consistent whole.”

    I like this statement. In the business world, it is called “managing the white spaces.”

    But, in the real world, everyone sees color slightly differently, so why would we expect everyone to have the same experiences or value the experience they have exactly the same. If people who witness the same event see it differently, why not the gospel?

    In the end, it is what works for you that matters.

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  13. Jeff Spector on September 15, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    Geoff-A,

    “Wasn’t the atonement an infinite atonement not a cumulative individual problems atonement?”

    What’s the difference, really? And who’s is to say how it really worked. you cannot explain it with man’s logic. Or is that just an excuse? :)

    You cannot discount people’s tears and attribute anything to them other than their own personal reactions. it doesn’t make any thing true or not true because of tears.

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  14. jmb275 on September 15, 2011 at 10:46 AM

    Re Carson-
    Great comment! I don’t think I disagree with you at all. And trust me, I know exactly where you’re coming from. I still think, however, that if more people demonstrate care and precision in language and presentation that it will catch on. The message I get from Church HQ is that they would LIKE to focus on the things I’ve mentioned. They don’t seem to want to speculate on Jesus seeing our faces in his suffering, etc. However, like most things in the church, it takes a long time for the culture to shift (though I think it is happening).

    Additionally, I don’t think we need to explicitly try and root out those views from people’s testimonies. What we do need to do is carefully craft our message to focus on the important things rather than the sidedishes.

    Re Geoff A-
    You’re awesome! I wish you were in our YM class. There is actually one of our YM who thinks like that. He asks the best questions that many of the teachers stumble over (he and I get along pretty well, I think it’s the engineering mentality). When he asks me I just give it to him straight, sometimes admitting I don’t know, or that I think some piece of cultural doctrine is a bunch of BS, etc. He’s a very realistic, down-to-earth kinda kid. I like that!

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  15. Jen on September 15, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    “I raised my hand to make it clear that this story was not true, that he had admitted it wasn’t. She just blinked at me as if I were speaking in tongues and then continued to bear testimony of this story as if I hadn’t said anything. Some people can’t handle the truth.”

    Interesting Hawk. I was in relief society recently and the story that Pres. Faust related several years ago of the Amish forgiving quickly came up. The problem I have with this story (and I felt it the first time I heard the talk) is that although the Amish do forgive the “English” quickly, when it comes to their own people they can be VERY harsh. In fact, they are willing to shun a family member for the rest of their lives for different reasons. When this story of how forgiving they are came up in RS, I had a hard time not bringing up this fact. I have found that in church, people want to keep things sweet and touching and they don’t care about the whole truth. There are many good things about the Amish, but completely shunning a family member because they choose a different path doesn’t make them so forgiving in my book. It just makes the story of them forgiving the “English” meaningless to me because the whole truth isn’t being told of their ways. I

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  16. Jen on September 15, 2011 at 5:34 PM

    “At this point he also shared that he “knew that Christ saw each of their (the young men’s) faces, and understood the burdens of each one of us as he accomplished the atonement.””

    Sometimes when I hear something that rings true to me and then something like this is thrown in, it makes me stop and think…really? We have no idea how it really went down, let’s just focus on the fact that it happened and not try and throw in stuff to create emotional responses.

    A man in our ward got up to bear his testimony and said he must have been super special in the preexistence to have all that he has in this life. I couldn’t help but think, OR maybe, God knew you would need all the help you could get so he sent you in a home with gospel so you wouldn’t royally screw up here. I think we need to be careful to not think we are “all that” because of something we really don’t know that much about, and we can apply that to all aspects of what we teach. It makes us feel good to think we were saved for this time, or to think the Lord saw all of our faces individually, but is it based on truth or are we just trying to create warm, fuzzy feelings so everyone can go home feeling a certain way? And isn’t that doing us all a disservice in the long run?

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  17. […] time I addressed the topic of our discussion in the church I talked about faith in Christ, and how we might shift our discussion from […]

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  18. Sonny on September 28, 2011 at 8:04 PM

    ““At this point he also shared that he “knew that Christ saw each of their (the young men’s) faces, and understood the burdens of each one of us as he accomplished the atonement.”

    By stating this, it puts an image in the minds of the YM, I would think. It seems that the speaker wanted to impress the kids with this image, the image of an agonizing Christ thinking of each YM in the room separately. It is a powerful image if you think about it.

    However, I think there are ways to give this image while not in so many words saying the exact image is reality (That Christ reviewed each of our faces.)

    Perhaps instead it could be said like, “The Savior knows each and every one of us, and his love for us is beyond our current comprehension. I like to picture in my mind that the Savior thought of each of us as he gave us the Atonement.”

    That way the image is placed in the minds but is not presented as fact.

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  19. jmb275 on September 28, 2011 at 9:02 PM

    Re Sonny-
    Yes, and admittedly, the powerful image is one that evokes a strong emotional response. I agree, I think your suggestion is a good way of representing it.

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