Faith is Proof

Standard

The word faith is often used colloquially as a synonym for trust or belief: “You just have to have faith.” That is the “official” definition of faith as found in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Belief, trust, confidence”. Other uses and definitions of the word faith exist but faith as belief, trust, or confidence are the predominant uses of the word. Uses such as those, however, do not do justice to the real meaning of faith.

Let’s turn to the writings of the apostle Paul. “Now faith is the substance [assurance] of things hoped for, the evidence [proof] of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).

We’ll accept the premise that there are things that are not seen but that exist. There are truths that are self-evident and self-existent that are not and cannot be observed. There are things that exist that we hope for but cannot see or hear or experience until some point in the future. As Alma stated: “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).

A part of faith is hope or belief but faith is much more than that. Thomas Hobbes explained faith in his work Leviathan: “But what (may some object) if a King, or a Senate, or other Soveraign Person forbid us to beleeve in Christ? To this I answer, that such forbidding is of no effect, because Beleef, and Unbeleef never follow mens Commands. Faith is a gift of God, which Man can neither give, nor take away by promise of rewards, or menaces of torture.” (Hobbes, Leviathan, iii. xlii. 271; spelling and punctuation not modernized). “Faith is a gift of God.” Wait, isn’t faith a gift we give to God? We believe in Him even though we don’t see Him? That’s belief and hope and trust. Faith transcends belief. Faith is a gift from God.

As Paul wrote, faith is an assurance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Faith is thus given as proof for our belief. Faith isn’t the antecedent, faith is the consequent. Belief and good works are the antecedent.

Alma further taught: “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.” (Alma 32:27-28).

We have desires to believe. Do we plant that desire of belief in our hearts? Not really. What we plant is the seed of faith (really, the word but I’ll incorporate faith into the word for now). We do not create this seed, it is a gift from God. That seed is planted and not cast out by our unbelief. We have to belief and trust and follow the Lord’s commands to nurture the seed of faith. As we do so, we are blessed with further evidence (faith) as we see the seed grow and sprout and produce good fruit.

Why it is important to recognize that faith is evidence (proof) is that many times we feel like we are acting “just with faith” until we receive proof – some big spiritual manifestation that will remove the need for faith (e.g., “Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls.” Alma 32:34). However, faith is exactly the proof we are looking for. How many times do we believe and trust and hope and experiment upon the word but miss the results of that experiment (faith)? So often we seek for signs without realizing that faith is the sign we’ve been seeking. Faith is a gift from God. As Moroni wrote on spiritual gifts: “And to [some is given] exceedingly great faith” (Moroni 10:11). Faith comes of and by the Spirit of the Lord.

Faith is part of a positive feedback loop. This means that with increased faith comes increased hope and belief and trust. Those in turn can increase faith. However, at its core, faith is a manifestation of God’s spirit and power. It is a gift from Him given to us to bless our lives and help us know of His love for us.

To read more that is related to this topic, read this previous post of mine: Philosophical Arguments and the Existence of God. We need to realize that our assumptions of what constitutes as evidence do not necessarily equate with the evidence given to us by God.

Hope in the Resurrection

Standard

I recently started a new phase of my graduate school training where I spend most of my days working with older adults who are neurologically compromised, or at least are suspected to be compromised. Working with this population of individuals is interesting and rewarding but also disheartening; it’s difficult seeing people whose brains have stopped working as they should (of course, I don’t think many of our brains quite work like they should – there’s certainly much more potential we all have that will not be reached in this life). What is comforting is knowing that as all of the people I interact with approach the end of their lives there is hope in the resurrection.

“The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.” (Alma 40:23).

It is important to keep in mind that our sufferings and trials only last a short time (this life is short – eternity is a long, long time): “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:7-8). Our foes might be our own brains.

That’s a glorious promise to remember as we struggle through adversity or watch those around us struggle through adversity! Pres. Uchtdorf recently offered additional words of comfort to those who struggle: “The Psalmist says, ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made; we [should] rejoice and be glad in it’ (Psalm 118:24). Amulek reminds us that ‘this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors’ (Alma 34:32; emphasis added). And a poet muses, ‘Forever—is composed of Nows.’1 Being always in the middle means that the game is never over, hope is never lost, defeat is never final. For no matter where we are or what our circumstances, an eternity of beginnings and an eternity of endings stretch out before us. We are always in the middle.” (Uchtdorf, Always in the Middle, Ensign, July 2012).

Watching individuals and families struggle with dementia or other devastating disorders is difficult – there’s very little to offer in terms of comfort clinically – but that’s where knowledge of the Plan of Salvation is comforting for those of us who know of it. It is our responsibility to share this knowledge with others – it would do much to assuage much grief in the world by offering hope in the future.

On Suicide

Standard

I just found out that one of my friends from high school days killed himself. I’ll call him Jacob (not his real name). What started out as a beautiful day quickly turned around. I knew that Jacob had been struggling with some issues (that’s an understatement) but the news came as a shock. While we were not close friends, we kept in touch through Facebook. Now he’s gone. And you know what? It’s not fair. Suicide is terrible, it is tragic. It does terrible things to those left behind. I can imagine the hurt and pain and despair that leads someone to do it but that doesn’t make it right. In some ways suicide is the ultimate form of free will; it is literally taking your life into your own hands and saying, “Thus far and no more.” However, while it is exercising free will, it does so in tragic circumstances. Jacob has gone to the other side. I don’t know what lies in store for him there. That’s between God and Jacob.

I’ve written a lot about death on this site. Some of the deaths I’ve written about have been tragic, others not at all. Jacob is now the third friend of mine who has taken his life. All of those deaths were completely unnecessary. Death comes to all but we need not and should not hasten it along.

While my primary interests are with the brain and with neuroimaging, I also do clinical work, including therapy. I’ve talked with people who have made attempts at taking their own lives. I have an acquaintance who has struggled for years with thoughts of taking his life. He’s told me that while he never made any attempts, there were days and weeks and months and years where he thought about it over and over. Why did he never take his life? He said that he was able to grab onto the bright days and persevere. He knew it was wrong and that it would hurt a lot of people so he did not do it. Plus, he had faith in God that things would get better in the future. Thankfully they have for him.

So what do we know about suicide from prophets? There are two really good articles that address the topic. One was given by Pres. Ezra Taft Benson, the other by Elder M. Russell Ballard, both in the 1980s. Pres. Benson said, “As the showdown between good and evil approaches with its accompanying trials and tribulations, Satan is increasingly striving to overcome the Saints with despair, discouragement, despondency, and depression” (Source). Pres. Benson then goes on and provides 12 things we can do to lift our spirits when we feel down even despondent. His suggestions are: repentance, prayer, service, work, health (focus on increasing physical health), reading (scriptures), blessing (priesthood), friends (family), music, endurance, and goals. While his suggestions are wonderful, they should not replace management by a competent mental health professional should that be necessary. However, by themselves, Pres. Benson’s suggestions would do a lot for depression. Many of them are not very different than what I tell my depressed clients but again, psychological and psychiatric care is vital in many cases. I also should add that not all depression is caused by sin but sin can cause depression, which is why repentance may be necessary in some cases. However, there is great power in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, power enough to overcome the deepest, darkest depression.

Elder Ballard’s article, Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not, is particularly powerful.

He states, “The act of taking one’s life is truly a tragedy because this single act leaves so many victims: first the one who dies, then the dozens of others—family and friends—who are left behind, some to face years of deep pain and confusion. The living victims struggle, often desperately, with difficult emotions. In addition to the feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and rejection which the victims of such a family feel, Latter-day Saints carry an additional burden. The purpose of our mortal lives, we know, is to prove ourselves, to eventually return to live in the celestial kingdom. One who commits suicide closes the door on all that, some have thought, consigning himself to the telestial kingdom.

Or does he? What is the truth regarding suicide?”

After noting that suicide is wrong, Elder Ballard provides this quote by Elder McConkie,

“The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, formerly of the Quorum of the Twelve, expressed what many Church leaders have taught: ‘Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.’ (Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 771; some italics added.)”

Clearly, there are many things that need to be taken into account regarding the circumstances surrounding a suicide. My friend Jacob was passing through some severe trials – many severe trials. I cannot even fathom going through all he was going through. Elder Ballard talks about this as well:

“I feel that the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstances: Was the person who took his life mentally ill? Was he or she so deeply depressed as to be unbalanced or otherwise emotionally disturbed? Was the suicide a tragic, pitiful call for help that went unheeded too long or progressed faster than the victim intended? Did he or she somehow not understand the seriousness of the act? Was he or she suffering from a chemical imbalance that led to despair and a loss of self-control?

Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth….

Suicide is a sin—a very grievous one, yet the Lord will not judge the person who commits that sin strictly by the act itself. The Lord will look at that person’s circumstances and the degree of his accountability at the time of the act. Of course, this gives us no reason to excuse ourselves in committing sins, nor will the Lord excuse us, if I understand correctly. We must constantly strive to do our best in emulating the Savior in every aspect of our lives. At the same time, however, let us remember that spiritual growth comes ‘line upon line,’ that the key—in the spirit world as well as in mortality—is to keep progressing along the right path.”

In short, we do not know all of people’s circumstances. Yes, many of us were hurt by Jacob’s actions; yes, what he did was wrong but we cannot pass final judgment on him, only God can do that. All that is left for us to do is mourn with those who mourn and provide what comfort we can. We can learn from this experience and try to help others who are struggling.

For those of you who might be struggling with your own despairing thoughts, I say to you, “Hold on!” The darkness is real, the despair is deep and painful, but there is reason to hope. “Hang on, hang on, when all is shattered, when all your hope is gone. Who knows how long? There is a twilight, a nighttime, and a dawn. We break, we bend. With hand in hand when hope is gone just hang on, hang on.” (Guster). After the darkness of night there will be day. If you are struggling with thoughts of ending your own life, please reach out to others.

Also, watch the following two videos to see what prophets have said about hope. Again, competent mental health providers can be extremely beneficial but true and lasting happiness is not found apart from Christ and His Atonement. We can find great hope in Christ. It might not be easy but hope can spring up even during the darkest night.

Mormon Messages: Good Things to Come

Standard

A new Mormon Messages video shares one of my favorite stories ever shared in General Conference. In October 1999, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland related a story about his car breaking down just outside Kanarraville, UT as he was a young man headed across the country to attend graduate school. Here is the Mormon Messages video of the story:

Here is the text of Elder Holland’s story from his talk An High Priest of Good Things to Come:

“Forgive me for a personal conclusion, which does not represent the terrible burdens so many of you carry but it is meant to be encouraging. Thirty years ago last month, a little family set out to cross the United States to attend graduate school–no money, an old car, every earthly possession they owned packed into less than half the space of the smallest U-Haul trailer available. Bidding their apprehensive parents farewell, they drove exactly 34 miles up the highway, at which point their beleaguered car erupted.

“Pulling off the freeway onto a frontage road, the young father surveyed the steam, matched it with his own, then left his trusting wife and two innocent children–the youngest just three months old–to wait in the car while he walked the three miles or so to the southern Utah metropolis of Kanarraville, population then, I suppose, 65. Some water was secured at the edge of town, and a very kind citizen offered a drive back to the stranded family. The car was attended to and slowly–very slowly–driven back to St. George for inspection–U-Haul trailer and all.

“After more than two hours of checking and rechecking, no immediate problem could be detected, so once again the journey was begun. In exactly the same amount of elapsed time at exactly the same location on that highway with exactly the same pyrotechnics from under the hood, the car exploded again. It could not have been 15 feet from the earlier collapse, probably not 5 feet from it! Obviously the most precise laws of automotive physics were at work.

“Now feeling more foolish than angry, the chagrined young father once more left his trusting loved ones and started the long walk for help once again. This time the man providing the water said, ‘Either you or that fellow who looks just like you ought to get a new radiator for that car.’ For the second time a kind neighbor offered a lift back to the same automobile and its anxious little occupants. He didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at the plight of this young family.

“‘How far have you come?’ he said. ‘Thirty-four miles,’ I answered. ‘How much farther do you have to go?’ ‘Twenty-six hundred miles,’ I said. ‘Well, you might make that trip, and your wife and those two little kiddies might make that trip, but none of you are going to make it in that car.’ He proved to be prophetic on all counts.

“Just two weeks ago this weekend, I drove by that exact spot where the freeway turnoff leads to a frontage road, just three miles or so west of Kanarraville, Utah. That same beautiful and loyal wife, my dearest friend and greatest supporter for all these years, was curled up asleep in the seat beside me. The two children in the story, and the little brother who later joined them, have long since grown up and served missions, married perfectly, and are now raising children of their own. The automobile we were driving this time was modest but very pleasant and very safe. In fact, except for me and my lovely Pat situated so peacefully at my side, nothing of that moment two weeks ago was even remotely like the distressing circumstances of three decades earlier.

“Yet in my mind’s eye, for just an instant, I thought perhaps I saw on that side road an old car with a devoted young wife and two little children making the best of a bad situation there. Just ahead of them I imagined that I saw a young fellow walking toward Kanarraville, with plenty of distance still ahead of him. His shoulders seemed to be slumping a little, the weight of a young father’s fear evident in his pace. In the scriptural phrase his hands did seem to ‘hang down.’ In that imaginary instant, I couldn’t help calling out to him: ‘Don’t give up, boy. Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead–a lot of it–30 years of it now, and still counting. You keep your chin up. It will be all right in the end. Trust God and believe in good things to come.'”

Faith, Psychology, and Therapy

Standard

While I spend most of my time doing research (both testing participants and dealing with the MRIs of their brains), I also spend time conducting therapy with clients. The more I learn about common mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, the more convinced I am of the benefits the gospel of Jesus Christ can have for mental illness. I find that at least some of the time in every session I find myself thinking, “The gospel sure could help with this problem.” I am not implying that the gospel is a panacea for issues such as depression but it can benefit a person tremendously.

I am going to focus on a narrow range of psychological disorders in this post. As psychologists we are most concerned about people with depression who state that they feel hopeless. It is usually a precursor to suicidal thoughts and intent, at least in the United States of America (depression manifests differently in different cultures). That is why when someone states or acknowledges that they feel hopeless, we become quite concerned. There might still be other things that are keeping people from killing themselves but hope is one of the most important keys. Those who are without hope despair (see Moroni 10:22) and have a tendency to act in desperation. However, there is a cure for this despair.

The gospel of Jesus Christ and faith in Christ provides one thing that makes mental illness – be it depression or anxiety or even something more severe – bearable. The gospel and faith provide hope. Hope is not always happiness but it can exist even if happiness is gone; hope can exist even when the inner calm is gone. For someone who is suffering from a mental illness, I believe that illness can become more bearable when faith in Christ leads to hope – hope for a better and brighter day and hope for a life when there will no longer be sadness and sorrow, at least not quite like we experience here in mortality.

It would be inaccurate to state that much sorrow and even depression was not caused by sin and other wickedness; after all, Moroni wrote, “Despair cometh because of iniquity” (Moroni 10:22). Also, “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10). People will not always find happiness in sin (see Mormon 2:13), whether in this life or the next, they will sorrow. Sometimes sorrow is good – it can help spur people to repentance (see 2 Cor. 7:10) – sometimes people become so ingrained in wicked habits that their sorrow is not unto repentance (see Mormon 2:13).

If you do a scripture search for the word sorrow you find many instances of the word; in most of the cases sorrow is juxtaposed with sin – the people’s own or some one else’s (see Mormon 5:9,11; 2 Nephi 1:17; Alma 31:2). The righteous can be sad and feel down because of the wickedness of those around them and those they love. The cure, at least in the scriptures, for most sorrow is repentance.

I want to repeat that in no way do I think all depression is caused by wickedness but I also not deny that wickedness can play a large role in the sorrow and depression people feel. It is not possible to live a wicked lifestyle and remain happy over time; we all have a divine spark within us that is offended by wickedness. As that flame burns dim, it affects how we feel. I have to add that any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is depressed should receive treatment from a competent mental health provider (and preferably one who respects one’s religious beliefs). Sometimes a bishop can be involved if the person feels that he or she has unresolved issues but the gospel is not a panacea for depression. As Elder Wilford Andersen stated at the April 2010 General Conference: “I do not wish to minimize the reality of clinical depression. For some, solutions to depression and anxieties will be found through consultation with competent professionals. But for most of us, sadness and fear begin to melt away and are replaced by happiness and peace when we put our trust in the Author of the plan of happiness and when we develop faith in the Prince of Peace.” (Andersen, Apr. 2010 Conference).

Now I want to shift gears for the rest of this post. Within the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are built many tools that while not explicitly established as treatment for mental health issues, can be beneficial for a range of psychological problems. One frequent contributing factor in depression are feelings of loneliness. All LDS Church members should be assigned home teachers (two men or a combination of a man and a young man 14-18 years old) who are supposed to visit monthly. All members of the Relief Society (women 18 and over) are also assigned visiting teachers (two women who are part of the Relief Society as well). In theory no one in a ward or branch (and thus the whole church) should feel completely isolated because they should be visited regularly by fellow church members. This program is not perfect but there are many people who fulfill their responsibilities every month. Related to this, all church members are also either a part of a Primary class (for the children), a Priesthood quorum (young men and men), a young woman’s class, or the Relief Society. Thus, ideally there should be a number of people who are involved and interested in each church member (in addition to the Bishop or Branch President). People are not perfect so this organization does not always work as it could but the organization is sound, even if the people are not always sound.

In addition, all church members are ideally assigned a responsibility – from librarian to Elder’s quorum president to Primary teacher to Bishop to General Authority to ward usher. All should have some level of responsibility and should (I’m dwelling in an ideal world for this post) feel needed. Some callings are busier than others – most bishops spend at least 20 hours per week fulfilling their responsibilities whereas a ward greeter might only spend a few minutes each week with his or her calling. Regardless of the level of responsibility, if a person has the right attitude he or she will feel needed. Even something as simple as that can alleviate symptoms of depression.

One thing that we often teach people who are depressed is that they should do something active every day, even if it is only for a few minutes. The Church provides numerous opportunities for people to be active and involved with other people. The Church provides a social situation where friends can be made. These social interactions are also key in helping people feel less depressed. That gets back to feelings of isolation or aloneness that so many people who are depressed feel.

Now what about other mental illnesses? I want to focus briefly on social phobia (performance anxiety or anything else related). The best and most lasting treatments for phobias are behavior treatments and in particular, exposure therapy. Exposure does not work for everyone but it is generally very effective. If someone has performance anxiety (specifically about public speaking) there are opportunities to overcome that anxiety. A person might be called as a teacher in church and have to teach every week. A person also might be asked to give a talk in Sacrament Meeting or bear his testimony or say a public prayer. Doing any of these these can serve as an informal exposure therapy. In addition, many young men and women in the Church serve full-time missions where they spend 18 to 24 months interacting with complete strangers. If you want a good situation to get over any social phobia one might have – that is a great time to overcome a phobia. With repeated exposure things become normalized and easier to do. This does not mean all anxiety will go away but it can be alleviated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Fear comes not of faith – faith replaces fear. Fear is at the root of a lot of anxiety disorders and faith can help someone overcome that fear. Again, I do not want to downplay the role that competent professionals can play but I think there are a lot of blessings that come through believing and living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly we will not be free from sorrow or psychological or medical or neurological problems but through faith we can find meaning in such adversity and have hope to overcome.