Note: Some edits have been made for further clarification.
Faith is exciting. Faith can cause a person to make significant change in their life, it can bring them through great trial, it can turn hope into action, and it can produce great strength in a once weak person.
Generally speaking, faith can be directed towards many things. We can direct it towards each other “I have faith that he will do as he promised”, towards God “I have faith that God exists and loves me”, toward a certain event “I have faith that she will heal from her illness”, towards science “I have faith that the treatments can cure my disease”.
More specifically speaking, the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to have faith in Christ. Though the scriptures are full of teaching about faith we seem to have developed a simplified view of faith.
We tend to think of faith like this:
In this diametric view of faith we perceive faith as an “all or nothing” experience, has a “on or off switch”, or as a “got it or not” kind of possession.
One of the biggest problems with this is that we then label ourselves, and our brother’s and sisters in the church, with the same kind of limitations. We tend to split everyone into two groups: either faithful or faithless. And then we apply labels to each group like this:
This kind of view on faith has serious flaws and even more serious, and damaging consequences. It is further complicated by the idea that someone’s belief in certain things is the same thing as their faith.
Faith vs no faith (minus the accompanied labels) might be a good way teach faith to young primary children. But as more mature saints we need to posses a more complex understanding of faith and it’s relation ship to belief and doubt and the kind of life we live.
One example of this diametric view being wrong is the fact that not even Christ uses it. We know from Doctrine and Covenants 76 that even in his final judgement Christ won’t sort us out into “Group A” and “Group B”. There isn’t just a Heaven and Hell. There are multiple kingdoms of glory and with in those kingdoms there are differing glories even as “one star differs from another in glory”. If Christ does separate us into just two group, then why do we think we can do so?
Spectrum of Faith
The truth is that our belief operates on a spectrum. Something more like this:
As life long investigators of the church, we can exist anywhere on this spectrum at different times in our life. The general idea being that we hopefully, in the end, have more belief then we started with.
However, there may be times in our lives that we move more to the left in the spectrum as our belief is tested or shaken. That is fine, we are allowed to be tested and tried. Always striving for a better understanding and increased belief is what is important.
By looking at belief in this manner we can now apply faith to the spectrum:
The very left side being someone without faith at all because their doubt prevents it. And the very right side being someone who has moved from having a portion of belief to “doubting nothing” by exercising faith.
However, the majority of members of the church will be somewhere in the middle section – the “Spectrum of Faith”.
With this in mind we move from an understanding of faith being so diametric:
To an understanding of faith existing on a spectrum, and thus much more inclusive:
Suddenly we see that “the faithful” includes a great many more people than we previously supposed. We see that faith can exist even in the face of serious doubt, and that trying to measure someone’s faith by their belief is more difficult than we thought.
An understanding that faith and belief are strongly connected, but not the same thing, is important. Belief produces faith and faith produces belief, but one’s belief is not a measure of their faith. Faith can exist in the presence of even a small amount of belief.
We then realize that the spectrum of faith is different than our belief:
We now look around church and see that everyone there believes, everyone is exercising faith, everyone is somewhere on the spectrum of faith. We can also see that many who are not at our church, or any church for that matter, on Sunday can still be on the spectrum of faith.
Even the person whose faith has not brought them to church, still has some faith.
The person who has serious doubts, but came to church anyway, is expressing their faith.
The person who doesn’t have belief in all things, but still shares testimony of the things they do believe, is exercising faith.
So also is the person who is excited for church, and read their scriptures, and said their prayers, and believes all of the doctrine.
We all live on the spectrum of faith.
Which Faith Really Matters
At this point it is important to clarify what faith we are really talking about. As I stated before we can exercise faith in a great number of things, which can all have positive effects if exercised appropriately. But the faith we are really talking about here is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. For without this faith, no other faith matters. It is only through him that we are saved from our mortal state, thus all other faith is subsequent to, or an appendage of, our faith in Christ.
All of our faith in the scriptures, and prophets, and doctrine can’t save us if we don’t have faith in Christ. However, faith in the scriptures, and the prophets, and the doctrines can help us better know Christ and exercise our faith.
Living on the Spectrum of Faith
It is so easy for us to think that we can have a single spiritual experience and suddenly be completely converted and left free of all doubt and with an unbreakable faith. However this is rarely the case.
When we teach from Moroni 10:3-5 we teach that praying sincerely can bring a manifestation of the spirit that something is true. This doctrine of gaining faith is correct, but our interpretation of it has been somewhat narrow. We imagine that Moroni and the other prophets are telling us to kneel down and pray for a “once and done” kind of spiritual experience. But that isn’t at all what is being said. It is simply saying that sincere prayer brings spiritual understanding of the truth. Is that one prayer or is it a thousand? Is that one prayer for all doctrines, or one prayer for each doctrine? The truth is, each individual will have a different experience with how they gain and grow their faith. As we increase our belief so can our faith increase, and as we increase our faith so can our belief increase also.
Alma expounds upon this idea in his preaching of the seed. Alma’s comparison of faith to that of a seed gives us great insight into how faith works. Faith may burst from the seed with that first prayer. But it does not burst into a full grown tree. It instead it grows from a tiny seed to a massive tree over time.
Just as the rings of a real tree reveal different amounts of annual growth, our faith too will grow with varying amounts. A drought of water can slow the growth of a tree, a drought of the Spirit can slow the growth of our faith. On the other hand, years with plenty of water or Spirit, both produce accelerated growth.
Alma cautions us to “nourish [our faith] with great care” so that “it may grow”. Just as with a spruce or a redwood, faith takes time and care to grow to full maturity.
Your tree of faith may be taller than mine right now. But over the next year mine might grow more than yours. Mine might have a year of no growth, and in that same year you might have the greatest amount of growth you’ve ever had. Each of us will grow in faith at different periods and in different ways.
When looking at faith as a spectrum it becomes very hard to label someone else according to where they are on the faith spectrum. But it becomes much easier to see where we sit on the spectrum. Our definition of disciple becomes much more broad and our definition of apostate becomes much more narrow. I do not mean to claim that there is no point where someone has lost their faith – there certainly is. Nor do I say that apostasy doesn’t happen – it does. But by looking at faith as a spectrum in which we all move as life goes on, we see that a great many more of us have faith as opposed to being without faith.
We may be a disciple that doubts some, like Thomas . Or we may be a disciple that is working on gaining a perfect knowledge . Even still we may be a disciple relying on the faith of others . In any case, we are still disciples.
Faith and Righteousness
With the spectrum in mind it is also easier to see that belief does not always directly correlate to righteousness. A very believing person can commit a very grievous sin. The scriptures contain examples of this. On the other hand, a person whose doubt outweighs their belief right now can still live every commandment and produce much good for others.
Faith produces action, and exercising faith on even a small amount of belief can produce a righteous life.
However, Thinking that we are safe from sin because we measure ourselves on the right side of the belief spectrum is a very dangerous practice. On the other hand believing that we can stay on the left side of the spectrum and be comfortable there forever, is also a very dangerous practice.
Righteousness also works on a spectrum in which our obedience increases and decreases. With this we can see that our positions on each spectrum may not always coincide.
We may believe a lot and exercise little faith, thus possibly leading to less obedience:
Or we could believe little, but still exercise great faith, thus leading to a life of obedience.
Life is more complicated than getting a single answer to a prayer, and then being “good to go” forever more – free of doubt and sin. Our position on each spectrum can be constantly moving. it can change quickly. We must exercise our faith to improve and refine both belief and obedience in the face of doubt, opposition, and temptation. At the same time we can increase our belief through study and pray so that our faith may also increase. We can also exercise our faith and live righteously allowing the spirit to work with our doubts and help us believe.
Growing our Faith
Alma warns us that if we “neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.”
On the other hand, if we “nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.”
Alma’s analogy makes it clear that the growth of our tree-of-faith depends largely on our actions, on our choices, and on how we approach our faith. He that doesn’t care for his tree will allow it to wither in the sun, he that does will give it water allowing the roots to follow the water to greater depths – thus finding more water.
Our faith can pull us through times of doubt and temptation.
Doubt, struggles with testimony, fears, temptations, and confusion can all come into our lives for different reasons and in many different ways. Alma directs that a diligent, patient, and hopeful approach to faith, both before and during times of doubt or struggle, can make all the difference between a tree that produces fruit and one that withers.
What do we learn from looking at faith as a spectrum rather than a division?
- That labeling ourselves and others as faithful can be very difficult and is rarely helpful.
- That almost everyone is excising faith. We may all be at different places with our belief but we can still exercise faith and live righteously.
- We must have an honest idea of where we are on the spectrum, and be willing to make course corrections that will allow us to grow.
- We must too, be willing to help others make course corrections. While being careful to not tear down the faith of others.
- We should always be striving to increase our faith with patience, and diligence, and hope. Caring for our tree-of-faith with the utmost tenderness.
Faith is too important to be treated lightly. It should be a deeply integral part of our daily lives. No matter where we are on the spectrum of faith I encourage us to continue to help our own tree grow, help others trees grow, and see people for the faith that they do have, and not the faith they don’t have.