Here’s another Come Follow Me discussion, looking at how four related terms appear in Alma 32: belief, faith, hope, and knowledge. This seems like a worthwhile discussion because the terms are used (and abused) frequently in current LDS discourse and because the distinctions between the terms become more meaningful for those in faith crisis or who are reexamining their beliefs in light of new information about LDS history, doctrine, or practice. After quoting Alma 32, I’ll contrast faith versus belief, faith versus hope, and faith versus knowledge.
Just to get things started, consider how the following four statements sound to an LDS listener:
- “I believe the Church is true.”
- “I have faith the Church is true.”
- “I hope the Church is true.”
- “I know the Church is true.”
Those are all fairly positive statements and all show a fair degree of belief and commitment to the Church. None of them are critical or even neutral about the Church. Yet in an LDS testimony meeting, any statement other than #4 is likely to be taken as expressing some doubt or hedging one’s bets. The Church’s emphasis on always expressing one’s faith or belief as knowing has the effect of denigrating faith and hope. I think that’s unfortunate. It also tends to confuse Latter-day Saints into thinking about their faith and commitment to the Church in terms of knowledge. LDS leaders like this because it sort of bootstraps a higher degree of confidence and commitment from the membership. But expressing faith and hope in terms of knowledge can backfire when doubt creeps in and a superficial claim to knowledge is then compromised. Often, faith and hope go down with the ship. In fact, faith and commitment are compatible with doubt. But you don’t learn that in any standard LDS context, which is why “faith crisis” has become such a thing lately.
Here is Alma 32:21-22, with the four terms we are looking at in bold text:
And now as I said concerning faith — faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true. And now, behold, I say unto you, and I would that ye should remember, that God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word.
There’s a lot of what your English teacher might call throat-clearing in that passage. Let’s try rewriting it in plainer English:
Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things. If you have faith, you hope for things which are not seen, which are true. Remember, God is merciful to those who believe on his name. God wants you to start with belief in his word.
Bullet points: Faith is clearly distinguished from knowledge. Faith implies hope. Belief qualifies the believer for God’s mercy. Belief is the right place to start. It may be all you need.
Faith versus Belief. I’m inclined to see belief as a willingness to accept or endorse some statement or claim about the world, and faith as simply a belief directed to a religious or divine object or claim or event or doctrine. So in a discussion where the religious context is clear, “belief” and “faith” are essentially synonymous. I’ll admit that faith is a richer term, generally implying trust and commitment as well as simply belief in an assertion. To say, “I have faith in God” is a broader claim than simply, “I believe in God.” But even the narrower statement implies some further claim. It is very unlikely someone will say, “Sure, I believe in God, whatever. It’s no big deal.” It seems clear that believing in God *is* a big deal, as “having faith in God” seems to acknowledge.
Faith versus Hope. Alma 32:21 claims that if you have faith, you thereby hope for some things. Looking just at the quoted verses, I’d venture that you hope the things you have faith in are true and you hope that God will have mercy on you (rather than delivering a just punishment for all you sinful deeds). The phrase “hope for things which are not seen, which are true” seems to stretch the word “hope” a little too far and to assume too much. It’s confusing the terms. As the word is generally used, we hope that something we want to be true is, in fact, the case.
This confusing use of the term “hope” seems to be an intended part of LDS discourse. Here’s how the discussion of hope in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org begins: “Hope is the confident expectation of and longing for the promised blessings of righteousness. The scriptures often speak of hope as anticipation of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.” Okay. But then there is this:
The word hope is sometimes misunderstood. In our everyday language, the word often has a hint of uncertainty. For example, we may say that we hope for a change in the weather or a visit from a friend. In the language of the gospel, however, the word hope is sure, unwavering, and active. Prophets speak of having a “firm hope” (Alma 34:41) and a “lively hope” (1 Peter 1:3).
Well, there you go. The word “hope” is repurposed to eliminate uncertainty. That’s why a Mormon who says “I hope the gospel is true” is heard as saying “I doubt the gospel is true” and is likely to elicit a defensive response. “Really? Well I know the gospel is true, o ye of little faith.”
Faith versus Knowledge. Let’s reemphasize that Alma plainly distinguishes between faith and knowledge. In the LDS Gospel Topics section, under “Faith in Jesus Christ,” the discussion does not try to push any hint of uncertainty out of the definition. It starts by quoting Heb. 11:1 and Alma 32:21, then states, “Faith is a principle of action and power. Whenever we work toward a worthy goal, we exercise faith. We show our hope for something that we cannot yet see.” The last sentence seems to be using “hope” as the regular English word, not as the redefined Mormon word. Later in the article, we read the following:
Faith is much more than passive belief. We express our faith through action—by the way we live.
Faith is a gift from God, but we must nurture our faith to keep it strong. … We can nurture the gift of faith by praying to Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ. … We can strengthen our faith by keeping the commandments. … We can also develop faith by studying the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets.
So the article talks about increasing or strengthening faith, but rather surprisingly it doesn’t say your faith should turn into knowledge. I think devotion (through prayer), duty (obeying God’s commands), and knowledge (studying the scriptures) are all reasonable extensions of faith. Devotion doesn’t swallow up faith; duty doesn’t displace faith; and knowledge doesn’t supersede faith. The discussion of faith in the “Faith in Jesus Christ” article seems to avoid the insistent “faith equals knowledge” claim often on display in LDS talks and testimony bearing.
Conclusion. So what words do you use to express your positive view of God or the Church: I believe, I have faith, I hope, or I know? Have you ever encountered pious pushback for your choice of words? If you follow or attend another church, how are these words used differently? Did your Mormon background make it difficult to relate to how other Christians express their belief and faith? And to you determined contrarians who would rather jump off a cliff than express a positive view of God or the Church, what words do you choose to express your doubt or dissatisfaction with God or the Church?