Faith as Active Hope: Hope, Plus!

February 1, 2006 | 15 comments
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A friend of mine was recently pressing me for a clear account of faith. Here is the gist of what I said, and a bit more. Tell me if you think I’m on the right track!

Faith is hope that you invest in. Faith is hope that you act on, hopefully: it is hope, plus action in hope. It is like trust, but you have to be careful using the word “trust” with faith, because sometimes “trust” suggests having no doubt. Faith doesn’t mean having no doubt! If you have no doubt, that would be knowledge, which is compatible with faith, but a different thing. Rather, faith is acting on hope, rather than doubt. For example, if my car breaks down in the desert, and a stranger offers me a ride, I don’t know for sure if the person will do what she said. But if I say, “Thank you!” and get in the car, I am exercising hope and a kind of trust. I am trusting this person to take me somewhere safe, where I can get more help (call a tow truck, etc.). I am trusting the stranger. If I have pepper spray in my pocket and have some doubts, I might even keep a hand on it, just in case, but by getting in the car, I am acting in hope and trust. I am putting faith in this driver. See, “putting” faith is like investing–faith is active hope, hope that you act on, so that the good thing you hope for can be fulfilled.

So, to have faith in God, you don’t even have to know that God exists. You only have to hope, and then act in such a way that if God does exist, you can develop the kind of relationship you would hope to have with him. There are times when faith is not the right choice, for example, with certain types of salesmen. There can be reasons for, or against, exercising faith. If a person has proved unreliable in the past, that can be a reason to make doubt active, rather than hope, in the future, with this person. There are a lot of things I don’t know about God. I expect to be quite surprised when I actually walk through the pearly gates, or whatever kind of gates God has put up in his heavenly kingdom. I only have a rather sketchy idea of what his plans for me and the rest of humanity will look like. The images in the scriptures, as often as not, are symbols and metaphors–often explicitly so ( . . . as the glory of the sun . . .). Or they refer to concepts I know I don’t have a detailed grasp of.

Faith in God is tricky because he has told us pretty clearly that many of the things we might hope he would do for us are not really what is best for us. Only when we come to see things from his perspective will be reliably know what we should be asking for. Having our expectations exploded, then, is to be expected when we put our trust in God. That is part of the point, though: we need, and hope, to be made into new creatures. God is like a refiner’s fire, and he will sift us as wheat! Faith in God, then, is not entirely or always peaceful. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, says Paul (Philippians 2:12) But we hope and trust that we will come through the ordeal as gold–even if we went in as iron, or clay, or straw–if we let the process of transformation begin and continue in us now.

15 Responses to Faith as Active Hope: Hope, Plus!

  1. Clark on February 1, 2006 at 9:54 pm

    What’s interesting is the Lectures on Faith. I recognize obviously their problematic status. But in the early lectures there’s a great deal of emphasis on having a ground for faith. That is, how can we have an active faith in God except to the degree we have knowledge? For instance to have faith to act a certain way we must know what that way is to act. Thus the competing cries of religions, all of whom cry to have faith in God and all for whom the implications of that faith are quite different.

  2. Ben H on February 1, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    Sure enough, Clark is the first one to comment, and brings up the Lectures on Faith!
    : )

    If you’re saying that my idea of faith doesn’t seem to fit with the Lectures, or certain points in the Lectures, you are probably right. Since they are no longer part of the Standard Works, I am okay with that. I am saying what I think faith is, and Alma 32 is very influential here, along with my sense of what God has in store (based on a lot of scriptures like those I refer or allude to above), and my own experience of faith. I haven’t read the Lectures in a long, long time, but I would be happy to agree with them in part, too.

    1) Something that we might call knowledge is necessary for faith, if familiarity counts as knowledge. You have to have the idea of God, or some sort of access to God, to exercise faith in God. But even here, I think you might follow the Spirit without knowing what to call it, and that would still be faith, though not a fully flowered faith. You might just have feelings, or hear a voice in your mind and heart, and come to trust them/it, and that would be a certain kind of faith in God. So, yes, we must “know” to act in a certain way, to show our faith by acting in that way: we have to have the idea of that way of acting, which not everyone will have, say, if they haven’t heard of it. However, I don’t think that means we have to know that is the right way to act; we only have to hope that it is, and act on that hope.

    2) Yes, lots of different people call for faith in different things, different gods, different programs of worship etc. I don’t see that that makes any difference to what faith is. Faith can be mistaken. You can put your trust in the arm of flesh, for instance. It sounds like you are trying to set up a concept of faith such that faith is always, by definition, right. But that sounds like a comforting delusion to me. If you have to know that what you are doing is right, before you can have faith, then I don’t see how you can ever get anywhere unless you already know (as many sincere people do not), because in spiritual things, faith nearly always comes before perfect knowledge, and if knowledge comes where faith is not already (e.g. Laman and Lemuel being shocked by Nephi), knowledge usually does not lead to faith. Knowledge without hope, without being glad to find out what you just learned, often makes faith even less likely.

    If you are a fideist and want to tell people faith is believing without reason (ignore those other people; believe me without reason!), it may be convenient to say that faith is always right, but I think that is just a deception, a way of trying to leap over the struggle, to skip the groping through the darkness that for many of us is a part of our path to the tree of life. It is partly by groping through the darkness that we learn what it is we hope for. Then, when we find that what we hope for is true! Sweetness and light!

  3. John C. on February 1, 2006 at 10:57 pm

    I like the comparison of faith to trust, more than to hope, because, in the Book of Mormon, Hope (in the triad of Faith, Hope, and Charity) reflects a greater degree of certainty than Faith (see, for instance, Ether 12:4). I tend to think of both Faith and Hope in terms of trust, with Faith reflecting the period before one is entirely certain that God will fulfill promises and Hope occurring once one has no doubt.

  4. Jim F. on February 1, 2006 at 11:59 pm

    Clark, I don’t see why I have to have very much knowledge in order to trust someone. If I know with certainty that he will not fail me, then I need not have faith at all. I think the Lectures are just wrong on this one.

  5. Clark on February 2, 2006 at 1:14 am

    But Jim, I don’t think Lectures make that argument. At least it sure doesn’t sound familiar. Rather what the point it makes is that for a statement to be taken on faith there must be some reason to believe it is from God.

    What Ben says in (1) is certainly true. However it seems that fundamentally the interesting question of faith comes in connection with prophets and scripture. If we didn’t believe that their claims were at least in some sense likely to be of God could we really exercise faith in them? Put an other way, I think I’m agreeing with Ben but think that the amount of things we take on faith is immense but is grounded by these claims.

    This ends up, for instance, being wrapped up in questions of historicity. Could we have faith in the Book of Mormon because it is the Book of Mormon if we didn’t have some reason to believe it historical. I don’t want to change the topic to the historicity question. Merely raise it as an example. I think the nature of faith changes depending upon our belief (and reasons) regarding the nature of texts. And it is that which I think the Lectures is concerned with. That’s why it spends all that odd time tracing the genealogy of statements about God. (It avoids, of course, the issue of accuracy of transmission – which is why I consider it flawed in many ways)

  6. Russell Arben Fox on February 2, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Jim (and others),

    Maybe one doesn’t need much knowledge in order to exercise faith, but as Ben acknowledges, you’ve plainly got to have some kind of knowledge, if only a common-sensical, contextual kind of “familiarity” with what it is in which one is placing one’s faith. But how can mortal beings come to such a familiarity with God? I suspect this is why the scriptures and prophets tell us as that faith–even in this very preliminary “active hope” sense–is a “gift”: we have to be given a feeling, a sign, a sense of comfort, a call, something so as to be able to say “whatever this feeling is, I know it’s not just indigestion; hence, I will put my faith in it.” That’s not really the kind of knowledge the Lectures on Faith talked about, but fundamentally I think much the point of those lectures regarding the prior need for something that be taken as an experienced-if-not-yet-ever-fully-revealed ground for faith holds true.

  7. annegb on February 2, 2006 at 10:08 am

    Faith is hope that you invest in. I like that.

  8. Mark IV on February 2, 2006 at 10:31 am

    I agree with John C. in comment # 3.

    Hope is strong enough to stand on its own. Faith , hope, and charity are the primary virtues, but faith and charity get all the attention and good reviews. Hope is used so commonly in our language that its gospel meaning becomes devalued. We say “I hope it doesn’t rain Saturday” and, if we are not careful, transfer that same kind of ineffectual wishing to the gospel context. Hope isn’t simply faith-lite, but rather a confident peacefulness that comes through grace.

    One of my favorite phrases from the hymnal is “. . .there is hope smiling brightly before us. ..”

  9. Ben Huff on February 2, 2006 at 5:11 pm

    Clark, I agree that one must have some reason to believe and put faith in one thing rather than another. I’m not making radical demands here; for a child, “Momma told me” is a pretty good reason; for an adult, the peace and joy that comes with the presence of the Spirit is about as good a reason as there is. Hope is itself a reason: “I would love for this to turn out to be right. It just might be right. I’m going to make sure I don’t miss out on that possibility for not trying!” Voilà, faith! I thought the Lectures were calling for something much stronger, including a conception of God accurate in a fair amount of detail.

    Russell, I agree faith is a gift. For one thing, to really hope that God exists and will fulfill his promises requires a certain kind of purity of heart, doesn’t it? There are people who would rather have the rocks and hills fall on them than see God’s promises fulfilled.

    Mark IV and John C., why do you say that hope is more certain than faith? I don’t see any indication of that in Ether 12:4. It says “which hope cometh of faith . . . [and] would make them sure and steadfast.” But it is only through faith (and the atonement, etc.) that it becomes possible for us to find a place on the right hand of God, and to some extent it is only after living the life of faith for a while that we come to fully appreciate what it is that is being offered. So to hope for such a place without having faith would be senseless. Thus I don’t see this as a comment on the relationship of faith as such to hope as such, but rather a comment on the powerful effects of a particular type of hope, based on how wonderful the thing hoped for is.

    I don’t see anything far wrong with our ordinary English uses of “hope”. I do think ordinary usage of “faith” has gone far astray.

  10. Jack on February 2, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    Ben,

    I don’t think the “ordinary english” uses of hope really address the transcendent very well. It’s one thing to hope that your aunt Tilly will show up for the wedding, and quite another to have one’s life charged with purpose because of the hope of salvation. Also, Nephi speaks of a “perfect brightness of hope” which, I think, does indicate that hope may be viewed as a notch above faith as it relates to one’s ascension to the knowledge of salvation. (or knowing that one is saved)

  11. Clark on February 2, 2006 at 7:00 pm

    Ben (#9), I think that Lectures is arguing that the degree or perhaps kind of faith we can have is proportional to the knowledge we have of God. I’m mixed on that, but I can see a lot of truth to it. But since I don’t appear to be close to the kind of faith that say Nephi had in Hel 10 I don’t worry too much. I’m much more working on the kind of faith in Alma 32 where I’m working off the words of the local prophets. So I definitely have a long ways to go before this becomes a practical rather than a theoretical venture.

  12. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 2, 2006 at 10:14 pm

    Well, I blogged on this topic at:

    http://ethesis.blogspot.com/2005/07/in-grief-it-is-easy-to-read-about-how.html

    First, “faithâ€? is used to describe hope or belief. When someone applies for a job and someone else says “I have faith you will get it” they are talking the first type of faith. Alma encourages people to have this kind of faith when they experiment upon the word, to just try to give it a place in their hearts.

    Second, “faithâ€? is used to describe the spiritual process by which one reaches through to the other side and connects with the power of God. It involves the first kind of faith, but it is something more (as there is a connection leading to the repeated comments that you can’t have faith in things that are not true — you can have type one faith but not type two faith in things that are not true).

    Third, “faith� is used to describe experienced based understanding that does not rise to the level of knowledge. I.e. I have faith that the sun will rise in the morning or I have faith that my cat really loves me.

    Finally, “faith” is used to describe the calm belief that results from the spiritual process of reaching through and connecting. It is the calm hope and peace that many in grief have following their prayers.

    In understanding faith we need to realize that just as the Greeks had words for different kinds of love (such as erotic, friendly, parental, etc.) we need words for the different kinds of faith in order to understand faith better.

    Also, it helps to understand that anger interferes with all kinds of faith. In my own life I’ve found that when I was angry the Spirit couldn’t reach me. It came to me as we were studying in Sunday School today and the teacher remarked that Joseph Smith had the same experience of being unable to hear God when he was anger, and that it wasn’t until he let go of his anger that he regained contact with God.

    As Joseph put it in describing his experience “when the heart is sufficiently contrite, the voice of inspiration steals in and whispers.”

  13. Mark IV on February 2, 2006 at 10:43 pm

    Ben, I’m not sure how well I have thought this out, so thanks for bearing with me. One of the rewards for me from this sort of interaction is that I get to sharpen my thinking.

    I think what I have in mind is described in Moroni 8:25-26. There is a process which begins with faith in Christ, which enables faith to repentance, which leads to baptism and the bestowal of the Holy Ghost. Only then are we filled with hope and love. It seems to me that hope is an attribute of character, like love, that those who are exalted will possess. My sense is that hope is not something that goes away when we achieve greater knowledge, but rather a way of being. Hope is an attribute of Godliness, not simply a temporary bandaid to get us through.

    By the way, I really enjoy this post. I have listened to probably hundreds of sermons describing what faith is, and a few hundred more on what charity is. But I can only remember two talks on hope and that is a pity, considering its importance.

  14. Ben H on February 3, 2006 at 6:54 pm

    Ethesis, I agree that people use the word “faith” in the ways you describe, and I think it is helpful to draw them out. What I am after, though, is not just what various contemporary speakers have in mind when they use the word. I am interested in getting at what the scriptures are talking about. So, as for . . .

    1: I don’t see that anywhere in the scriptures faith is merely hope, and its prominent grouping alongside hope and charity strongly implies it is distinct.

    2: What evidence do we have that faith is only faith when it happens to be right? that is, when it happens to be faith in something true? This again seems to me a Protestant attempt (which creeps into the Lectures on Faith) to leap over the struggle and somehow declare from the start, “I’m right; everyone else is wrong, because, you see, belief in my God is the only kind of belief that is faith!” But that seems like it’s just cheating.

    3: Yes, when we talk about faith, we often emphasize the sort of confidence that comes without one’s being able to point to public, definitive evidence. But I don’t see that as stemming from the meaning of “faith” so much as stemming from the nature of spiritual life. Because we use the word “faith” almost exclusively in religious contexts nowadays (which was not always the case, as you’ll see e.g. from reading Shakespeare) we associate it with the distinctive kind of confidence that matters in religious life, but that says little about the meaning of “faith” itself.

    4: This sounds like a kind of peace that comes from hope, not faith itself.

    So, I guess I don’t see the need for different words for faith here. I don’t see these different ideas as attaching properly to the word “faith”.

    Perhaps I would have been persuaded if I had been able to read your original blog entry, but for some reason my browser is not pulling it up.

    * * *
    Mark IV, the hope mentioned in Moroni 8:26 certainly comes after a significant exercise of faith. But I think you are inferring too much from the passage. The fact that hope is mentioned at that point doesn’t mean that hope hasn’t been involved earlier, though it might have been a different kind or degree of hope. (Faith, for its part, hasn’t been mentioned by name at all in these verses.) Perhaps the hope was more tenuous, whereas through the Holy Ghost it becomes full. Or perhaps the hope was more vague, whereas the knowledge that comes through the Holy Ghost gives us a much clearer sense of what it is we are hoping for. Similarly, Alma 32:29 describes how through the exercise of faith, and the fruits of that exercise, faith is increased. I see Moroni 8:26 as referring to a similar process whereby hope (a component of faith) is perfected.

  15. Jack on February 3, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    Ben: “What evidence do we have that faith is only faith when it happens to be right?”

    I guess we don’t. Still, it seems to me (if I’m understanding you correctly) that the scriptures consistently address faith with the underlying assumption that God is involved. It is never set forth as an absract concept. We have faith *in* someone (God) or something having to do with God (his word–which is essentially the same thing). We don’t merely “have faith”–scripturally speaking, that is.