“Parables and Promises: An Approach to Learning by Faith,” Ensign, Sept. 1983, 14
Parables and Promises:
An Approach to Learning by Faith
This article is the second place faculty essay winner in a 1983 ASBYU/Ensign essay and poetry contest addressing “The Role of Learning and Becoming a Saint.”
A man fell among thieves who beat him, robbed him, and left him for dead. As he was suffering along the side of the road, a traveler came by. He noticed the sufferer and felt compassion. Believing that he might be the only one traveling the road for quite some time, he immediately rushed to the man and tried his best to revive and comfort him. Unfortunately, he knew very little about first aid, and his sincere attempts to help were of no avail. The man died.
But perhaps this story could be changed somewhat:
A man passed by the wounded and suffering victim. Having skill in medicine, he knew he could save the man, but considered whether it would be worth his time to do so. Obviously, the victim had no money to pay for his services. But when the passerby imagined the recognition he could receive if he performed his services gratuitously, he decided to take advantage of the situation. He therefore returned to the man and revived him, saving his life. Later, he invited the press to interview them to get the details of his magnanimous service.
Again we might change the story:
This time as a man was walking by, he noticed the victim and thought, “This is an interesting situation. I wonder how people will react to it.” He found a hiding place where he could carefully observe both the victim and those who passed by. He took careful notes on the reactions of each person along the road. Just as he had hypothesized, no one stopped to help the victim, who subsequently died. Disgusted by society’s lack of humane concern, he wrote a scathing article on the prevalence and dangers of apathy. This criticism was published widely and was highly acclaimed for its importance.
These stories, of course, are variations on Jesus’ great parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:30–37). With an injured man before him, the first traveler was well-intentioned, but incompetent. The second was competent, but hypocritical. The third was interested, but detached. How we evaluate these three different approaches to the situation depends on our perspective. If they are evaluated strictly in terms of the outcome for the victim, the second story might be preferred. If they are evaluated only in terms of what is good for society as a whole, perhaps the last story would be the best. The first best represents personal integrity.
The question is, which perspective is most consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
In the final story, the passerby merely observed and recorded the situation without feeling a personal responsibility to take direct action. Though he may have positively influenced society by publishing carefully constructed moral arguments, his actions could not be called virtuous. The fact that he allowed the victim to die in order to strengthen his article casts a dark shadow on the true morality of his approach.
Christianity requires more than knowledgeable moralizing without action; for as Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21.)
The passerby in the second story was competent and saved the victim’s life; that is, he had the needed knowledge, and he acted according to that knowledge. But Christian virtue can hardly be attributed to one who performs good deeds only to increase his future business or to be honored by others. Christianity requires more than knowledgeable or even successful action. From a Christian perspective, good works are defined more by the intentions of the heart than by the outward results. This man corrupted the morality of his actions by his selfish intentions. Of those like him, Jesus said:
“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
“And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matt. 7:22–23.)
Only the first traveler remained true to a Christian perspective. He saw that the situation required immediate action, and acted—according to the best of his knowledge and out of pure intent. It is regrettable that he lacked the knowledge necessary to give effective help, but in spite of the results, he did what he believed was the morally right thing to do.
It should not be assumed from this analysis that good intentions alone excuse us for neglecting to learn. The Good Samaritan of Jesus’ parable illustrates one whose actions were both moral and knowledgeable—not well-intended action without knowledge; not informed action without moral intent; not moral analysis without action. Indeed, God has commanded us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118) in all areas of life (see D&C 88:77–80). But one person cannot in this life learn everything there is to learn. We cannot be experts at every skill necessary to serve our fellow man successfully under any and all circumstances. What, then, would be of most value to know and how should we learn it? This question challenges us to place learning in the context of man’s eternal purpose.
Each of us has come to earth with a unique mission or calling. The fundamental practice of life is to discover that mission and fulfill it. Fichte, the German philosopher, began one of his inquiries by asking the question, “But—what am I myself, and what is my vocation?” Through his prophets, God has revealed that we are literally his spirit children with the potential to become as he is. Each of us then might well ask the questions, “What am I myself? What is my purpose? What is it that God would have me know, do, and be?”
Consistent with these personal questions is the idea taught in the Lectures on Faith that we must know three things in order to obtain eternal life: we must know that God exists; we must correctly understand his attributes and character; and perhaps most importantly, we must know that the course of life we are pursuing is according to his will.1
It would be cruel indeed if there were no way for us to learn these eternal prerequisites. But God has promised that the knowledge of these things is available to all those who will seek it. Gaining such knowledge, however, depends upon our perspective of the world. If, for example, we create a view of the world which excludes the possibility of a God, then we will not seek the knowledge we need to obtain eternal life. Even if we accept the existence of God but develop an inaccurate understanding of his nature, our lives will similarly be misdirected. Likewise, if we conclude that God no longer communicates to man, it will be impossible for us to know that the course we are pursuing is according to his will. In short, in order for us to fulfill the divine calling which God has given us, we must develop a perspective for seeking truth which is consistent with that calling. Therefore we come again to the challenge to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”
I am convinced that within the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ lies an approach to finding truth which is far more powerful than other perspectives. By applying these principles we can make greater advances in all areas of learning; but even more importantly, the quest itself can be exalting.
The first of these principles is faith. Faith is an inherent part of life. It is not only “the substance of things hoped for” or the evidence of “things not seen, which are true” (Heb. 11:1; Alma 32:21), it is also a principle of action. In the Lectures on Faith, we read:
“If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action in them.”2
In other words, faith is a belief which commits us to experience. Consider how much faith is required in the most simple action—for example, moving an arm. A neurologist might explain how a chemical process created electrical impulses which traveled through the nerves to the muscles, making them flex. But although this description may be accurate in one dimension, it does not answer the question, “How did I do it?” I do not know how I can raise my arm, but I have no doubt that I can. And so it is with all action. I hope, often with complete confidence, that I will be able to do something of which I cannot be certain before I do it.
Our physical bodies require us to act in order to survive in mortality. They demand that we learn faith as a principle of physical action. Indeed, in this life, we literally walk by faith! Moreover, the Lectures on Faith suggest that as faith is necessary for physical action, so it is with mental activities as well: “Without [faith] both mind and body would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental.”3
Therefore all attempts to gain knowledge are based on faith. For example, we adopt an approach or method of inquiry because we hope that it will lead us to knowledge. And by adopting it, we make a personal commitment to its values. But faith as a general principle of action and knowledge does not necessarily lead to the fulfillment of our personal missions. The object of one’s approach to truth becomes an essential element. Elder Bruce R. McConkie reminds us of what the focal point of our personal perspective should be:
“There is no salvation in that general principle of faith alone, that moving cause of action, which causes the farmer to plant his seed with the unseen hope that it will bear grain. But there is faith unto salvation when Christ is the focal point in which the unseen hope centers.”4
A mental perspective based on any other principle or being, leaving Christ out, will ultimately be a stumbling block to the soul. It is not sufficient to simply think about him or even to believe in him. It is not sufficient to be skilled at bringing about workable results. From the Christian viewpoint, faith in Christ must be the foundation upon which all our actions are built. As the Lord has explained, learning should be focused to help us be better prepared to do his will, “to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you and the mission with which I have commissioned you.” (D&C 88:80.)
Learning by study occurs when an individual examines the ideas, observations, experiences, or reflections of others through listening, reading, or some other medium. The emphasis of such learning is on vicarious experience. When one learns by faith, the insight and understanding gained from others become an inspiration to personal action. He steps beyond a mere understanding of someone else’s experience. The learner wants to “know for himself” and acts upon that desire. He seeks his own convincing experience that penetrates his feelings and perception. He is changed by the experience, not just informed.
Learning by study can bring one to the water’s edge, but only by faith can one partake of the “water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14.) As the Prophet Joseph explained, study alone is insufficient to give us the knowledge we most need:
“Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose.”5
President Brigham Young added, “All the Scriptures from the days of Adam until now cannot, alone, save one individual. Were they all committed to memory so perfectly that they could be recited with the greatest ease, that alone would not save one of the smallest of God’s creatures, nor bring any person nearer the gate of the celestial kingdom.”6 It is the doing, not simply knowing what to do, that will save us.
The Lord has promised that by the power of the Holy Ghost we may know the truth of all things. (Moro. 10:4–5; John 14:26.) But this testimony of truth can come only to those who are prepared by faith and by pure intent to receive it. It comes as a whisper which only he who has the faith to hear will hear. It is by faith, therefore, that we can come to know the purpose God has given us; it is by faith that we can learn the course we are pursuing is according to God’s will. This faith will then move us to moral and knowledgeable action.
Learning by study and learning by faith are not mutually exclusive. In fact, learning by faith often occurs as an extension of study. President Joseph F. Smith related an experience that illustrates how study, if accompanied with the proper mental exertion, can lead to learning by faith:
“I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures;
“And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world; …
“While I was thus engaged, my mind reverted to the writings of the apostle Peter, to the primitive saints. …
“I opened the Bible and read, … and as I read I was greatly impressed, more than I had ever been before, with the following passages. …
“As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great. …
“And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived.” (D&C 138:1–2, 5–6, 11, 29.)
The History of the Church also records an experience in the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith in which study was extended by faith and revelation:
“This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with Brothers Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps, and during the research, the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding.”7
It should not be assumed that learning by faith is less rigorous than that which is suggested by the academic community; on the contrary, it encompasses all that is true about reason and research while challenging the inquirer to bring his own personal life into harmony with the will of God. President Harold B. Lee testified of its rigor:
“We would remind you that the acquiring of knowledge by faith is no easy road to learning. It will demand strenuous effort and a continual striving by faith. …
“In short, learning by faith is no task for a lazy man. Someone has said, in effect, that such a process requires the bending of the whole soul, the calling up of the depths of the human mind and linking them with God—the right connection must be formed. Then only, comes ‘knowledge by Faith.’”8
The counsel of living prophets provides us one unique and powerful opportunity to seek this “knowledge by faith.” God has revealed, “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:38.) Through study we can learn what God’s living servants have declared. Through faith, or the application of such declarations, we can come to a personal knowledge of their truthfulness. This “bending of the whole soul” is not mindless conformity, but an upward “linking with God.” Such a test requires the highest level of intellectual and spiritual commitment. (In this regard, some have supposed that prophets have no right to influence social policy or civic affairs, but who would be so foolish as to restrict the topics of God’s revelations?) Jesus gave this challenge to those who would test his precepts when he said, “My doctrine is not mine but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:16–17.)
The promised knowledge of such tests does not always come immediately. God has revealed great knowledge to those who patiently obeyed and diligently sought understanding, but only after their faith had been sufficiently exercised. Consider how, after the trials of their faith, Adam was taught the meaning of sacrifice (Moses 5), the brother of Jared was able to see the Lord (Ether 3–4), and Nephi was shown his father’s dream and its interpretation (1 Ne. 11–15), to name only a few.
Such knowledge, gained by faith, is possible for anyone who pays the price. President Marion G. Romney has taught, “This method of learning by faith is not restricted to the prophets. It is available to all of us. The Lord has assured that he is no respecter of persons.”9 Neither is it restricted to “religious truths,” for the challenge is that we seek all truth religiously. Abraham was taught astronomy; Nephi, ship building; Solomon, architecture; Moses, history; Daniel, dream interpretation; etc. In fact, President Brigham Young taught that “every discovery in science and art, that is really true and useful to mankind has been given by direct revelation from God, though but few acknowledge it.”10 And President Joseph F. Smith promised that those who would listen to the Spirit and increase their personal virtue, “will get a clearer, a more expansive, and a more direct and conclusive knowledge of God’s truths than anyone else can obtain.”11
But though knowledge by faith is not restricted to the prophets nor to religious truths, it is inherently connected with personal morality. From a Christian perspective, learning is of value only to the extent that the recipient improves his actions and strives to do what is right. President David O. McKay wrote:
“Gaining knowledge is one thing and applying it, quite another. Wisdom is the right application of knowledge; and true education—the education for which the Church stands—is the application of knowledge to the development of a noble and Godlike character.
“A man may possess a profound knowledge of history and of mathematics; he may be an authority in psychology, biology, or astronomy; he may know all the discovered truths pertaining to geology and natural science; but if he has not with this knowledge that nobility of soul which prompts him to deal justly with his fellow men, to practice virtue and holiness in personal life, he is not a truly educated man.
“Character is the aim of true education; and science, history, and literature are but means used to accomplish the desired end. Character is not the result of chance work but of continuous right thinking and right acting.”12
Learning by faith calls for an integration of our personal and public lives, our religious and professional pursuits, and also offers us the opportunity to progress from both our everyday and our extraordinary experiences. Applying what the Lord has revealed about learning, it seems entirely possible to transform any or every hour of life into an integral whole, which places the otherwise mundane into the context of the eternal. The challenge given each of us is to find that which God would have us do and then to do it, morally, actively, and knowledgeably—“even by study and also by faith.”
Let’s Talk about It
After reading “Parables and Promises: Learning by Faith,” you may wish to discuss some of the following:
1. What does it mean to say that faith is “the underlying principle of all action,” including learning?
2. Do you feel that the course of life you are pursuing is in accordance with God’s will? Are there changes in perspective that would make your life more reassuring in terms of obtaining eternal life?
3. How do you think faith, specifically in Christ, applies to the sciences and arts, and in fact to every field of learning?
4. Can you think of examples of action with good moral intention but without knowledge? Of knowledgeable action without genuine moral intent? Of knowledgeable moralizing without direct action? What changes might have resulted in action that is both moral and knowledgeable in each example?