I have faith, but I don't feel it
I've been less frequent in my blogging this past year. A large part of this has been a shift in my spare time to launching the Conference Talk Podcast (if you haven't given it a listen yet, check it out)! Meg, One of my co-hosts ran yesterday's episode. She discussed Elder Hugo Montoya's talk "The Eternal Principle of Love." In that talk, Elder Montoya says "Jesus walked with no fear and with no doubt to Gethsemane, trusting in His Father." Meg surprised me by pushing back on the wording of that line. Fear is a natural emotion and part of the human experience. Surely Christ must have felt some amount of nervousness at that moment? Can't we have fear and faith?
That question settled in my mind and would not leave. So I started studying.
Fear is the opposite of faith
Scores of scriptures from Isaiah to the Doctrine & Covenants repeat the perennial command "Fear not." The Bible Dictionary entry on fear notes that fear of the Lord (better translated as respect or honor for the Lord) is good, but fear of the world or the future is "something unworthy of a child of God, something that “perfect love casteth out” (1 Jn. 4:18). The first effect of Adam’s sin was that he was afraid (Gen. 3:10)." Fear is bad because it "destroys the feeling of confidence God’s child should feel in a loving Father… Ever since the Fall God has been teaching men not to fear."
When Peter walked on the water, he did alright… for a few steps. But when he saw the boisterous wind and the waves, fear replaced his faith, and he started to sink. Elder Andersen teaches that "fear and faith cannot coexist in our hearts at the same time." Pres. Packer went one step further and taught that "fear is the opposite of faith.".
I could list a hundred more resources supporting this point. Fear and faith don't mix.
Feelings of fear during exercises of faith
And yet my personal experience says they can mix. True faith is stepping outside our comfort zone, right? Every time I have done that, I feel pure terror.
During high school, I was involved in a state youth government program sponsored by the YMCA. A few thousand students from all across North Carolina gathered each year at the state Capitol to write bills, meet in mock state legislature, debate the law, and voted on bills to go to the "Governor's desk" at the end of the session. One year, a bill was proposed to mandate a "more fun" sex ed class that encouraged promiscuity and included "hands-on workshops." Not surprisingly, that bill was immensely popular with teenage legislators.
This was a "mock" government, yet I felt a very real impression to stand against it and petition the governor to veto it because it included no provision for religious exemption. I wasn't the only one who took it seriously. The large, upperclassmen authors of the bill gathered their friends and accosted me in the hall, demanding I stop, and even trying to snatch my petition paper away. The story made the newspaper for the conference and caused a stir. Everyone knew me as "the religious nut."
Again, this conference was a bunch of teenagers playing pretend government. But the fear I felt trying to stand for what I thought was right was very real.
In the years since then, the stakes have gotten higher. A Twitter mob last year mounted a virtual campaign against me, spammed my email address, wrote articles about me in LGBT+ newsletters, and trashed the review of our podcast. Some individuals even reached out to my company's HR department to demand they fire the "bigot" on their payroll. My wife and I were afraid someone would find out where we live and throw a rock through our window.
But the most worrying backlash for me comes from practicing Church members I deeply respect– Bishops, branch presidents, and other leaders I've linked arms with to serve throughout the years– who take offense at me for defending Gospel truths and Church policies.
These experiences of standing up when it's unpopular have required faith that someone out there might benefit from me taking a stand and faith that God sees my intent when I'm clumsy in my wording and offend people.
But what do I feel in these moments when I'm exercising that faith? Fear. Fear of professional repercussions. Fear that I might be wrong. Fear of destroying friendships. Fear that I'm pushing those on the fence away from the Gospel instead of bringing them into it.
Getting beyond the feelings
As my co-host pointed out, fear is a natural response from our nervous systems when we are placed in stressful situations. How can it be faithless to fear?
I think the answer comes in defining the terms. Read the Bible Dictionary definition of faith. It's almost 400 words long. But notice words are missing from the definition: feel, feeling, or emotion. Instead, "faith is a principle of action and power." It's not too much of a stretch to say that, as far as the scriptures are concerned, faith is practically a verb. It's less something you have or something you feel so much as something you do.
Elder Andersen pointed this principle out in three separate talks (one, two, three): "Faith is not only a feeling; it is a decision. [We] need to choose faith."
Moroni says that "by faith all things are fulfilled." All things. The Lectures on Faith (originally attributed to Joseph Smith and formerly constituted the "Doctrine" part of Doctrine and Covenants), expounds on this:
[Faith is] the principle of action in all intelligent beings… Would you have ever planted if you had not believed that you would gather? … Is there any thing that you would have done, either physical or mental, if you had not previously believed? Are not all your exertions, of every kind, dependent on your faith? Or may we not ask, what have you, or what do you possess, which you have not obtained by reason of your faith? Your food, your raiment, your lodgings, are they not all by reason of your faith? …
Flipping a light switch is the exercise of your faith that current will flow through the wires and the room will light. Going to work is the exercise of your faith that your efforts will be rewarded with a paycheck. Even creation itself was an act of God's faith:
[The power] by which the worlds were framed, was faith; and that it is by reason of this principle of power, existing in the Deity, that all created things exist– so that all things in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, exist by reason of faith, as it existed in HIM… It is the principle by which Jehovah works, and through which he exercises power over all temporal, as well as eternal things.
Faith is not a feeling, it's acting with the expectation of and reliance on a certain outcome. As a friend of mine put it, "Faith is where you put your chips." Or like that moment from the The Chosen:
So if the scriptures define faith not as a feeling but as an action, what does that mean about fear?
As the opposite of faith, fear– the choice, not the feeling– is holding back. It's choosing not to expect or rely on the promised outcomes of righteous action. It's not feeling stressed about tight finances, it's deciding to pay the electric bill instead of tithing because we don't want to prove God to see Him come through for us. It's not feeling concerned about our testimonies, it's choosing not to pray for revelation because we've already decided "the Lord will make no such thing known unto us." It's not feeling pain for our LGBTQ+ friends, it's choosing to withhold full-throated support for Gospel teachings on these issues and place our confidence in our preferred political or social influences instead of God and His Prophets. Like faith, fear is a choice.
Fear and Faith influencing our feelings
So that's it? We'll always feel terrified as we exercise our faith? Nope. As we consistently go outside our comfort zones, our comfort zones expand. As we repeatedly choose to rely on the Lord, we become more comfortable doing so. Jesus had learned through three decades of life that He could completely trust His Father. He internalized this intellectual understanding so deeply that when the storm raged, He felt peaceful enough to sleep in the boat. Joseph Smith had developed such a level of faith in God that he could feel "calm as a summer's morning" even as he voluntarily rode to Carthage "like a lamb to the slaughter."
If, like me, you do not yet fully feel total peace and calm when faced with a daunting faith opportunity, that's okay. It won't come immediately. Take extra courage, focus on what you do know, and pray that you will become accustomed to relying on the Lord. And someday, we will have the ability emotionally to "stand still and see the salvation of God."