Defining Faith

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by Stephen R. Marsh

(CC) by Jordi Paya in Barcelona Catalonia

In my experience with grief I often read about how faith affected or effected many things.  Faith became a major focus for me through a series of experiences and I began to really think about it, since faith is important to surviving grief and loss.

One thing that became obvious is that the word faith is used several ways, and they do not mean the same thing.  I’ve come to realize that confusion caused by the differences in meaning is common across the uses of the word “faith” in the scriptures and in our dialogue with each other. Once we understand faith, we can protect against those things that diminish it.

First, faith 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, faith 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 evidenced by repeated comments that you can’t have faith in things that are not true — you can have type one faith or hope in things that are not true, but not type two faith or connection to the power of God by hope in things that are not true because you can’t connect with them).

Third, faith is used to describe experience-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 dog really loves me.

Finally, faith is used to describe the calm understanding that results from the spiritual process of reaching through and connecting. It is the settled hope and peace that many in grief have following their prayers; it is a result rather than a process.

In understanding the word faith and in using it 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 and to understand what someone means when they use the word. It helps when we discuss faith to be clear on the type that we mean.

(CC) Adam Tinworth

Also, it helps to understand that anger interferes with some kinds of faith but not others. 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 angry. It wasn’t until he let go of his anger that he regained contact with God, and I realized that the same thing was true in my life.

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

I’ve had many issues as I have dealt with my losses (and seen many others with loss deal with their issues), and during these I sought to strengthen my faith.  I found that for a short time anger acted as a block to faith and to the whisperings of God.  It became a barrier for me. Then, when I was contrite, the Spirit began to whisper to me.

I still had to rebuild myself.  Spiritually I was weakened from the experience, but each kind of faith was there to restore me. Paul warns against letting bitterness spring up, and I am certain that anger is a stem of bitterness: one that harms our faith, in all the ways that faith can be a part of our lives. Protecting each form of faith from bitterness and understanding the way each form of faith grows are a powerful combination for building great faith.

  • What do you usually mean when you use the word faith?
  • What other obstacles do you experience to having faith?
  • Do you think there are other ways we use the word?
  • Can you think of a better word to use than faith for some of the ways we use the word?
  • Are we better off with just one word for all four types of faith?

One Response to Defining Faith

  1. Paul says:

    Stephen, this essay is quite thought-provoking. I think I like your four faiths, but I wonder if they are on a continuum — have I grown from your first level to your fourth? Or could I? I haven’t settled it in my own mind, but it’s interesting for me to think about.

    I think there’s value in clearer terms of expression. In the church (and in the Articles of Faith) we talk about Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that particular faith has particular meaning. While that faith might result in something similar to our faith that the sun will come up each day (meaning we may act on that faith), because the object of the faith is different, then the nature of the faith is different, too.

    Thanks for stretching my brain this morning.

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