Habits of Faith

The New Testament epistle to the Hebrews teaches that “the just shall live by faith” (Hebrews 10:38). It then goes on to catalogue the miraculous things that are recorded in the Biblical history, saying that, by faith, Enoch “was translated,” Noah “prepared an ark,” Abraham “sojourned in the land of promise,” Moses and the Children of Israel “passed through the Red sea as by dry land,” and “the walls of Jericho fell down” (Hebrews 11:5, 7, 9, 29, 30). Such a list can give the impression that the faithful are those who do fantastic things with their faith, or it can give the impression that the Lord’s approval is earned or manifest only through the spectacular. If we had more of the story, though, I think we would see that those miracles of Biblical proportions were preceded by lifetimes of diligent devotion, by habits of faith that prepared the people involved for the miracles they would later witness. Indeed, we would probably see that, rather than bless only those who manage to do a few marvelous things, God “is a rewarder of [all] them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

It is rarely the spectacle that fosters lasting faith. Even after having seen the Red Sea parted and Sinai’s summit aflame with the presence of the Lord, Israel famously wandered in the wilderness for forty years, building idols to worship and complaining that their lives had been better when they were slaves in Egypt. Despite seeing God’s hand at work in their lives, the rebellious in Israel did little to harmonize their lives with the will of the God who had delivered them from captivity. They were consequently blocked from entering the land of promise, having deprived themselves of the blessing of rest through their recalcitrance.

Even the parting of the Red Sea was not enough to sustain the faith of those who refused to change their daily habits (lds.org).

Even the parting of the Red Sea was not enough to sustain the faith of those who refused to change their daily habits (lds.org).

Contrast their experience with that of Alma as recounted in the Book of Mormon. The son of a prophet, Alma broke with his father and went about with the sons of the king, persecuting the faithful and fighting against the church of God. One day, however, “the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood” (Mosiah 27:11). The angel spoke specifically to Alma, saying, “Alma, go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more” (Mosiah 27:16). After his encounter with the angel, Alma lost his strength and remained as though dead for two days, and, when he recovered, he arose, saying, “I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit” (Mosiah 27:24). He then went on to be a great teacher of the gospel, the head of the church, and a prophet.

At first glance, Alma’s story seems to be one of miraculous conversion—an overnight change from critic to clergy. I don’t want to diminish the wonder of his encounter with the angel, but what Alma later taught about the origin of his faith has always surprised me: rather than tell the gathered multitude that his faith and devotion were the result of a spectacular intervention, Alma said, “Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true…. [T]hey are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true” (Alma 5:45-46). While the angelic visitation may have helped Alma to redirect his energies, it was his consistent devotion to small and simple acts of faith thereafter that solidified his conversion.

Alma’s experience has taught me that the secret of enduring faith is enduring action. The initial seeds of his faith might have been planted by the angel’s visit, but his faith only became deeply rooted through his commitment to pray, to fast, and to seek the Lord and His will consistently and often. Unlike the rebellious in Israel, Alma was willing to harmonize his life with the will of God, and that willingness, paired with action, brought about a change in his heart and in his life. Similarly, we can do much for our faith by doing small things consistently to show that we trust the Lord and that we want to know Him. The Savior Himself taught: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23). Surely, if we choose to trust rather than reject His teachings by committing to live according to them, we will come to know His love more clearly, and we will be blessed to see His hand at work in our behalf. Ultimately, our habit of faith will change us as Alma’s changed him. In the words of Elder Richard G. Scott, a modern-day Apostle, “With consistent practice, faith will become a vibrant, powerful, uplifting, inspiring force in your life.”

As important as it is to recognize that our faith doesn’t depend on our seeing the Red Sea part or the walls of Jericho fall, it is a blessing to acknowledge that we don’t need to build arks in order for our faith to be acceptable to the Lord. In fact, I’m confident that, at the end of this life, the Lord will be much more interested in what we have become than in what we have accomplished. As the Book of Mormon teaches:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19; emphasis added)

I don’t believe the Lord will look for a list of submissive things that we did or for patient things that we said; rather, He will look to see that submissiveness is a part of who we are and that patience is a component of our character. Thus, instead of looking for our accomplishments, the Lord will look to see how our habits of faith have changed us and improved us. Just as consistent acts of faith can foster belief, continuing commitment to such actions can transform us into saintlier beings. Elder Scott explained:

God uses your faith to mold your character. Character is the manifestation of what you are becoming. Strong moral character results from consistent correct choices…. Your faith can guide you to those correct choices. Clearly, it is what you do and what you think about that determine what you are and what you will become. Therefore, the choices you make need to be inspired by the Lord…. You need to ponder, pray, and exercise faith to willingly make choices consistent with the teachings of the Master. Such choices are made with trust in things that are believed and when acted upon will be confirmed.

Ultimately (and I might add mercifully), the Lord would much rather have us live lives of quiet devotion than to disregard Him except for a few dramatic displays of empty faith. What good are a few attention-grabbing accomplishments that go unreflected in one’s daily life when compared with a life of diligent, unyielding, and perhaps unrecognized faith? The value of developing habits of faith becomes clear to me when I consider that a habit of jogging for thirty minutes daily would do much more for my cardiovascular health than running a single marathon would do—unimpressive though any single outing may be when compared with the accomplishment of running a marathon.

As a final example of the power of habits of faith, Daniel, famous for surviving in the den of lions, did not start out with incredible miracles. When Daniel was first introduced to the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, he and his companions, committed to avoid defiling themselves with the king’s meat and wine, requested simpler and more wholesome food. Their overseer relented and fed them grains and water. Because of their commitment to a habit of faith in requesting wholesome food, the account tells us, “God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams” (Daniel 1:17). Later in Daniel’s life, his commitment to the habit of prayer put him at odds with the law to reverence only the king. In accordance with the law, Daniel was cast into the den of lions, but he was found safe and whole the next morning, saying, “God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me” (Daniel 6:22).

Though we remember Daniel for the miracle of the lion's den, that miracle was preceded by a lifetime of quiet devotion. (lds.org)

Though we remember Daniel for the miracle of the lion’s den, that miracle was preceded by a lifetime of quiet devotion. (lds.org)

Such a spectacular miracle did not come about arbitrarily—it was a product of the faith that Daniel had accumulated through a lifetime of righteous habits. Because he had learned to trust the Lord through his consistent adherence to little truths, he had prepared himself to trust the Lord in larger matters, and the Lord honored his faith with marvelous blessings. Surely, as we develop our characters through unassuming habits of faith, kindness, and hope, we will prepare ourselves to accept the Lord’s will in all things and to receive His blessings at all costs. Indeed, by striving to develop habits of faith, doing what is within reach rather than overreaching for spectacular achievements that are beyond us, we will begin to see lasting and miraculous changes in our characters, in our hearts, and in our lives. We will come to trust more fully the promise that the Lord made through His servant Isaiah when He said, “[T]hou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me” (Isaiah 49:23).

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By Small and Simple Things

In the April 2011 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder M. Russell Ballard shared the story of a young gold prospector. Searching for nuggets of gold, the young man was disappointed by his inability to find anything more than unremarkable rocks speckled with inconsequential amounts of gold. He complained to an older prospector, saying, “I’m looking for nuggets like the ones in your pouch, not just tiny flecks.” To him the prospector replied, “Son, it seems to me you are so busy looking for large nuggets that you’re missing filling your pouch with these precious flecks of gold. The patient accumulation of these little flecks has brought me great wealth,” illustrating the notion taught by the Book of Mormon that “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6). I know that God works in our lives in small, sometimes apparently inconsequential ways and that He expects us to commit to obeying Him consistently even in small ways. More than that, though, I know that the blessings that come by accepting His small and simple blessings and through following Him in small and simple ways will be great and marvelous.

The Book of Mormon tells of a small army of young men who were tasked with recapturing a fortified city that had been lost earlier in the war. Unfortunately, they were seriously outmatched by their enemies in the city. Their commander, Helaman, wrote:

[W]e did wait in…difficult circumstances for the space of many months, even until we were about to perish for the want of food. But it came to pass that we did receive food, which was guarded to us by an army of two thousand men to our assistance; and this is all the assistance which we did receive, to defend ourselves and our country from falling into the hands of our enemies, yea, to contend with an enemy which was innumerable. And now the cause of these our embarrassments, or the cause why they did not send more strength unto us, we knew not; therefore we were grieved and also filled with fear, lest by any means the judgments of God should come upon our land, to our overthrow and utter destruction. (Alma 58:7-9)

Faced with the reality of their small numbers, dwindling rations, flagging morale, and the mighty enemy inside the city walls, these soldiers surely felt overwhelmed. They knew that they needed help beyond their own strength. They may have felt that they had been set up to fail. Thus, they did the only thing, perhaps, that was left to them to do—they prayed: “Therefore we did pour out our souls in prayer to God, that he would strengthen us and deliver us out of the hands of our enemies, yea, and also give us strength that we might retain our cities, and our lands, and our possessions, for the support of our people” (Alma 58:10).

I imagine that that little army must have known of how the Lord had strengthened Israel and toppled the walls of Jericho millennia before, and it’s possible that some of those soldiers who prayed hoped for a similar dramatic answer to their prayers. But the Lord did not topple the walls of the city. Rather, as Helaman wrote, “[I]t came to pass that the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him” (Alma 58:11). If I had been there, hoping and praying for spectacular divine intervention, a feeling of reassurance might have come as a disappointment to me. It might have been easy to feel that the Lord didn’t really understand my situation or my needs. Then, it could have been easy to lose any hope of success and to surrender to my circumstances. That’s not what those soldier did, however. Helaman continues, “And we did take courage with our small force…and were fixed with a determination to conquer our enemies, and to maintain our lands, and our possessions, and our wives, and our children, and the cause of our liberty. And thus we did go forth with all our might…” (Alma 58:12-13). Then, in the strength of the Lord, they overcame their circumstances and recaptured the city.

To those soldiers’ earnest prayers the Lord responded in a very small and simple way—He encouraged them. There was no more weaponry, no more food, no more men; there was only more hope. For that faithful army, however, that feeling of reassurance was enough, enough for them to know that God was with them and that He would help them. With that confidence, they didn’t need anything more: they were persuaded by the quiet witness that the Lord was their strength, and, as a result, they were motivated to go forth in their might and in His might to accomplish a mission that had seemed, only days before, impossible. I know that the Lord most often works through such small and seemingly insignificant ways in our lives because of experiences I’ve had in my own. Rather than topple the walls of Jericho or part the Red Sea, He’ll give us assurances or invite us to do something small and simple. That’s not because He doesn’t understand the severity of our situation; it’s because He knows just what we need. It’s up to us, then, to acknowledge that what He gives us is enough, enough for us to know that He is with us and that He will help us. I know that there is great peace and strength in accepting the small and simple blessings the Lord gives us, for I have seen that success comes when I begin to act on what He gives me rather than wait for Him to empower me or to guide me in some more dramatic way. Over time, treasuring up the little kindnesses He scatters along my way has helped me to accumulate a greater faith and a firmer understanding of His love, power, and commitment to my success—and to the success of all of His children.

(lds.org)

(lds.org)

Indeed, while the Lord works in small ways in our lives, He does not expect us to part our Red Seas on a daily basis. The soldiers did nothing dramatic—they prayed. That prayer was enough for the Lord, enough for Him to reach out and bless them with the courage they needed. Similarly, our small, simple, and consistent efforts to do the Lord’s will, to improve our faith, and to bless those around us will be enough for Him, enough to reach out and to bless us with the support that we need. The Book of Mormon contains the sermon of a king named Benjamin, who taught his people that “it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength” but that “it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize” (Mosiah 4:27). The Lord doesn’t expect us find or to produce huge nuggets of gold because such is usually beyond us. Instead, He expects us to be diligent—consistent—in collecting the flecks of gold along our away with the promise that, if we are diligent to the end, we will be prepared and qualified for His richest blessings.

I’m certainly not guilty of being a lucrative gold nugget producer, but I have tried to be diligent in collecting small flecks of gold—of doing small and simple things to bring myself closer to the Lord. One of the decidedly small and simple things that I’ve decided to do consistently is to read and study the word of God on a daily basis, including in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. While the time I spend studying accounts for a small portion of my day and though the amount I read per day accounts for a small portion of the collected word of God, my effort to study consistently has brought me great blessings. Sometimes, I feel, as I study, that the Lord blesses me with little more than encouragement or hope—feelings and thoughts that are, by themselves, almost inconsequential. However, as the blessings and knowledge that I’ve gained through consistently dedicating even a small part of my day to learning the Lord’s will and doing it have accumulated and have brought me a greater wealth of faith. I have a conviction now that I didn’t have before that God knows me, loves me, and wants to help me to achieve a successful and happy life. I’ve come to see, through that steady accumulation of tiny acts of devotion and of the blessings that follow, that, truly, “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass,” and I know that, as we all act in small ways to strengthen our faith, the Lord will accept our efforts and bless us in simple yet profound ways. When we accept and remember the small blessings that the Lord gives us, we will, I know, come to feel His love more fully and come to love Him more deeply. Surely, we will recognize that, thanks to the kindness and grace of our Savior Jesus Christ, we do not need exhaust ourselves, worrying about doing great things; rather, we can rest in hope and concentrate on consistently doing small things with great faith, trusting that, over time, great blessings will follow.