(My last article elicited many comments. The general tenor of those remarks was that “any idiot” could look into a microscope and see for himself that germs exist, but that a person can’t see God. The scenario below is from something I heard many years ago. I have modified it somewhat to suit the situation at hand. I hope it gives the reader cause for more reflection on what it means to have faith in God.)
Imagine that a scientist discovered one day that the drinking water of your city was contaminated with a dangerous bacterium, one that could make thousands of people seriously ill and even kill the young, the elderly, and the infirm. Knowing that there was only a matter of hours to warn the people of the city, he called a press conference and announced his discovery. The news media ran the story to disseminate the warning as widely as possible.
Now suppose that you have just walked into your kitchen and poured yourself a tall glass of cold water. You have been mowing the lawn on a hot July afternoon. You’re as thirsty as you can be. Nothing sounds as good to you in that moment as the feeling of icy-cold water to quench your thirst. As you raise the glass to your lips, you hear the warning on the television in the living room behind you. As the announcement reaches your ears, you have a choice to make. That choice is based in faith, not science.
In that moment, you raise the glass up to the window and look at it through the light. You swish it around and examine it. You can’t see any contamination. You sniff the water and it smells OK. Your senses don’t tell you that anything dangerous is in there. You ponder, “Perhaps it’s just one area of the city. Maybe our water is safe.” Nevertheless, you hesitate to drink the water.
If you really chose to analyze the decision before you, you might question the credentials of the scientist? What kind of credentials did he have? What kind of methodology did he use? What was the specific kind of bacterium and why is it dangerous? Are there other scientists who confirm his findings? How can you validate the warning?
Well, the only way to really know is to experience what the scientist experiences. That would mean going back to college, majoring in microbiology and completing a course of study that might last several years. Then you’d have to duplicate the professional experience of the scientist, going through similar employment scenarios which would provide you with experience, perspective, wisdom, and judgment.
Anyone can look in a microscope and see little blobs of things floating in a drop of water. It takes specific knowledge to discern the dangerous ones from the ones that are harmless. After having gained the exact same knowledge and experience as the scientist who gave the warning, you’d have to perform an experiment with similar equipment and conditions on a sample of water that came from the same source as the scientist’s. Then, and only then, would you be able to determine for yourself if the glass in your hand was contaminated.
Unfortunately, you’re dying of thirst in that moment and undertaking a process that might last several years would be extraordinarily inconvenient.
So what is your only realistic option? You could have faith that the scientist has done his work thoroughly and that the media is reporting his findings accurately. You think, “Why would there be any reason to distrust a scientist?” However, a brief moment of doubt flashes through your mind. It was just recently that a group of East Anglia climate scientists were alleged to have suppressed scientific data that would have cast doubt on their politically-motivated global-warming conclusions. You wonder, “Whatever happened to that hole in the ozone-layer that scientists claimed would destroy life on earth in the 1980s? What happened to the claims of scientists in the 1970s that the earth was facing a new “ice age” by the 1990s?”
Hmmm. That complicates matters. Sometimes science is wrong. Sometimes it is manipulated by unscrupulous individuals. Unfortunately, you don’t have the resources to go and investigate the integrity of the scientist. Was he an “A” student or a slacker who barely passed his classes? Does he have some ulterior motive to his announcement? Does he sell water purifiers on the side? Maybe he owns stock in a company that sells bottled water. You could wait to find out if some reporter will investigate the scientist’s background. But you’re really thirsty and that glass of water looks perfectly safe. You swish and sniff it yet again, wondering.
All you have to go on is the testimony of a witness–a man who says he saw something that you cannot see in that moment, and which you cannot confirm without undergoing years of training and experience. You can have faith in the warning and heed it or you can disregard it and drink. You decide to trust in something you cannot see and verify for yourself. You pour out the water and grab a soda instead.
Congratulations. You just made a decision based on faith.
It is no different with planting a garden or losing ten pounds. The initial action of planting the seed or turning away from a delicious dessert is based in a hope of something you cannot see at the present time. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma said:
“And now as I said concerning faith—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)
The Prophet Joseph Smith said in “Lectures on Faith:”
“Were this class to go back and reflect upon the history of their lives, from the period of their first recollection, and ask themselves what principle excited them to action, or what gave them energy and activity in all their lawful avocations, callings, and pursuits, what would be the answer? Would it not be that it was the assurance which they had of the existence of things which they had not seen as yet? Was it not the hope which you had, in consequence of your belief in the existence of unseen things, which stimulated you to action and exertion in order to obtain them? Are you not dependent on your faith, or belief, for the acquisition of all knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence? Would you exert yourselves to obtain wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown, if you had not believed that you would reap? Should you have ever planted, if you had not believed that you would gather? Would you have ever asked, unless you had believed that you would receive? Would you have ever sought, unless you had believed that you would have found? Or, would you have ever knocked, unless you had believed that it would have been opened unto you? In a word, is there anything that you would have done, either physical or mental, if you had not previously believed? Are not all your exertions of every kind, dependent on your faith? Or, may we not ask, what have you, or what do you possess, which you have not obtained by reason of your faith? Your food, your raiment, your lodgings, are they not all by reason of your faith? Reflect, and ask yourselves if these things are not so. Turn your thoughts on your own minds, and see if faith is not the moving cause of all action in yourselves; and, if the moving cause in you, is it not in all other intelligent beings?”
The Prophet painted a much broader picture of faith than just mere belief in the existence of a thing. It is the “moving cause of all action.” Anytime we labor for something that is unseen, the impetus behind that action is faith. Working towards any unseen objective requires faith and effort. For example, enrolling in college demonstrates faith that you’ll earn a degree if you follow the prescribed course of study. In matters of religious faith, we demonstrate faith that God exists and that he is able to fulfill his promises when we follow his “prescribed course” of obedience, good works, and ordinances like baptism.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ did miracles in the presence of witnesses. He was crucified and rose again from the grave. There were witnesses of those events. Eleven men saw him as a glorified, resurrected being. They touched him. They knew he was more than just a spirit. In the weeks that followed, Jesus appeared to others, including a group of some 500 men. Later that year, he appeared to a thousands of witnesses in the New World. These witnesses testified of what they saw.
In 1820, Joseph Smith saw God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in a grove of trees in New York State. Several years later, Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in temple in Kirtland, Ohio. Like our scientist, who sounded a warning based on those things which he saw–and like all the prophets of the past–Joseph Smith testified of what he had seen and heard.
The prophets in all eras sounded a warning and an invitation. The warning is something we all understand. Meanness, unkindness, hard-heartedness, envy, greed, anger, and immorality bring sorrow into our lives. Those things will destroy our souls. The invitation is that God loves his children and that he can bless us if we will accept his way and follow him in faith. The atonement of Jesus Christ is central to that invitation. Because the teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can overcome human weaknesses and become “saints.” We can find a happiness that is eternal.
As you stand there with a metaphorical “glass” in your hand, you have a decision to make. You can disregard the warning and risk the consequences. If you heed the warning, you will find safety and peace. By choosing to accept the warning, you will find that truth validates itself. Making that choice is no more difficult than accepting the warning of an unknown scientist who seeks to protect the well-being of others. It’s a leap of faith. Your experience that follows will confirm the rightness of the choice. It is possible to know for yourself that God exists, that Jesus is the Christ, and that–out of the myriad of choices available–there is one true church in which God has invested his authority, a conduit of revelation, and his power. My personal experience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tells me that it is that very church. God does live and man can know it.