“Believest thou…?”

Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D.
August 2005

“Believest thou…?”: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience

It’s an old and frequent spiritual question, and it shows up in many forms. It is the question Jesus asks the disciples who hear his troubling and offending discourse on being someone whose flesh must be eaten and whose blood drunk by those who would have eternal life. The discourse confuses many, who turn back and follow him no more, and then, to those who remain Jesus asks the question, “Will ye also go away?”1 To the man who seeks out Jesus to heal his deeply troubled son, the question is implied, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”2 To Nephi, approached by an angel after he is carried away to the top of a high mountain, the question is more direct: “Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?”3 And to the brother of Jared, who asks to see the premortal Jesus after hearing his voice and seeing his hand, the question is perhaps most clearly stated, “Believest thou the words which I shall speak?”4

Believest thou? I am increasingly impressed by the implications of this simple question, and by how often it is at the heart of my mortal dilemmas. Do I believe God’s commandments and teachings, or do I find other explanations of reality more credible for getting what I want or keeping me safe? Do I trust him to tell me the truth, even when it includes improbable and invisible things? Do I trust him to have the love, the will, and the power to save me despite the ways I am not worthy? Do I trust him to keep his promises? Do I believe?

What complicates this question of belief, of course, is that our belief choices are not black and white. Few of us would consciously choose to believe Satan over God evil over good, but choices are seldom that obvious. On any given issue, which is God’s point of view and which is Satan’s? Who or what represents God’s view most accurately? Can I trust myself to discern accurately, or to weather feelings of loss or betrayal if things do not go as I expect when I ask God for healing favors? At what point do I abandon one set of beliefs as false or inadequate and embrace a new world view? While different people answer these questions in different ways, such questions remain at the heart of spirituality and religion.

Even if we desire God’s paradigm over all others, the scriptural stories already cited suggest that challenges should be expected by believers in all ages. Like the Jews of old, we may be offended by lessons or talks or teachings inconsistent with our sensibilities about what is ethical, reasonable, or rational. Like the father with the sick child, a life tragedy may cause us to both seek God and wonder what we can realistically expect from Him. Like Nephi, we may face the decision to follow a religious leader whose faults or weaknesses are both glaring and impactful in our lives. Or like the brother of Jared we may simply be asked to choose, even though we thought we had already made that choice, whether or not to believe God, even when his words are but a faint echo in our troubled heart.

In my experience, neither critics nor apologists for the Church do much to convince me whether or not to believe. Debates, analysis, and scientific evidence may alternately undermine or support my beliefs, but belief itself is a choice I wrestle God for, somewhere in a dark swampland of my inner landscape, where not only God’s credibility but my own are at stake. This is Jacob’s experience on the night he divides his progeny across the Jordan River to try to minimize the damage he is sure is about to be inflicted by his brother Esau, reportedly on his way with an army in tow. Jacob, we are told, is “greatly afraid and distressed”5 as he tries to respond to the threat of his brother’s imminent arrival. He and Esau did not part on good terms, and Jacob’s apparent deceptions of his brother may figure into his fear of reprisals. We have reason to fear when trouble threatens us as well, because we almost always know that we are not devoid of offense toward God or any man. So this is one of those moments when the question is not simply, “will God keep his promises to me,” but also, “did I discern those promises accurately,” “does my conduct give me a right to expect them to be fulfilled for me,” and “do I understand accurately the nature of God’s compassion and the extent of his power?”

Jacob calls on the Lord with these words:

O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee:

I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands.

Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children.

And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea….

And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day…

And Jacob said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me….

And he said unto him, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel [one who perseveres with God, or Let God prevail]; for as a prince [a rightful heir] thou hast power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [the face of God]: for [he said] I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.6

To reverse a familiar axiom, we are not the children of Israel in body only, but we are Israel in name–the name that means those who wrestle with God until his promises prevail despite the obvious threats to his word, wrestling with him to bless us despite our unworthiness to receive, wrestling to believe him despite our very rational fears and doubts and misgivings, wrestling with him in the dark until, as the dawn breaks, we learn more fully who he is and who we are in relationship to him.

We wrestle with God over many issues that surround our faith. We wrestle with issues of whom to trust to represent God, how to discern spiritual truths, and what to expect if we follow God. Many of the presenters at this conference will address some of the specific issues on which rational people may differ in regards to the LDS Church, which claims authority to act in God’s name. Both thoughtful and questionably intentioned individuals may have differing views of the Church’s history, scriptures, policies, leaders, and claims. In exploring these questions I find it reasonable to assume that God can only be known as he reveals himself to us and not by man’s reason alone. I also think it reasonable that God would be reasonable, and that it is reasonable for us to try to use reason to understand Him in the absence of complete revelation. Questions about the ethics of polygamy, the science of DNA evidence for the Book of Mormon, the meaning of race, or the history of a Church policy are appropriately–if cautiously–approached by reason when revelation is silent.

But as a psychologist I also believe that when we discuss these topics, particularly when they evoke strong emotional responses, it may not be reason alone that we are dealing with, but also psychological phenomena like betrayal, power, trust, and trauma. Sometimes what we need to clarify our beliefs are reasoned answers to reasonable questions, but sometimes what we need is healing from old wounds of betrayal, powerlessness, or loss that get reopened by new information or experience. Faithful Church members, honest critics, angry former saints, and committed apologists may all benefit from such considerations. So I would like today to touch on the process of belief rather than on its contents.

As we wrestle with the question “Believest thou?”, some of the sub-questions which intrigue me are:

  • How do I decide what to believe in religious matters?
  • How do I deal with doubt, disillusionment, or betrayal?
  • How do I free myself once and for all of self-doubt, doubts about the Church, or doubts about the existence or trustworthiness of God?

How do we decide what to believe in religious matters?

People from many religious traditions have “spiritual” experiences–feelings, insights, premonitions, and encounters which they are left to their own conclusions to decipher. It is not unusual for people to conclude from such experiences that God is their God, that He is nearby, or that something associated with that experience is God’s will. Often in the Church we encourage people to look for such feelings and experiences as evidence of God’s hand, or of the truthfulness of the Church’s message. Yet people from many religious backgrounds can have such experiences. How do the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when someone speaks in a testimony meeting differ from the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when the 4:00 parade begins at Disneyland? Critics may conclude that there is no real difference, that feelings are not trustworthy or related to the spirit, and that Church members are being misled by missionaries who teach them that such experiences are the Holy Ghost testifying to them of truth. I have seen this argument used to discredit “spiritual” experiences as nothing more than subjectively produced emotions with no supernatural significance. In many cases I might agree. Because I feel certain emotions in response to a film–even a Church film–may say more about the credibility of the actors’ performance or the director’s talent than the presence of God or the historical accuracy of the message, for example.

Fortunately, we are not left with emotion alone to discern God’s hand in our lives. Reason, experience, counsel from others, and other forms of revelation may all assist us. In fact, I notice that emotion plays into only some of my spiritual experiences, and often only in a secondary way. More often the spiritual promptings and confirmations I receive come very quietly as something simply occurs to me with a kind of rightness that has no real emotion attached to it at all. Other times my emotions have been running high, but the clear voice of the Spirit is utterly calm and outside of the range of my thoughts or experience. Some of my clearest spiritual experiences have come as a question or statement in my mind that completely surprised me, or that took me a moment to take in and understand. Others have come as a pure love beyond my previous capacity to imagine. I have received impressions to do something that, when acted on, produced an amazing but utterly unpredictable result that was a clear answer to a prayer. And at least a few times God has simply told me something which was later confirmed but that I had no way of knowing by any other means. I expect that people from many religious backgrounds may have such experiences, and I am comfortable imagining God in many of them, but they are not easily explained away as a self-produced warm feeling. I am comfortable with being tentative about what I conclude from such experiences beyond the experience itself.

What is also striking is how often I do NOT get any spiritual feelings or impressions even when it would be most convenient to my faith and comfort if I could. What I’d really like to know is not so much why I have faith-promoting experiences at predictable times as why I don’t have faith-promoting experiences at times when it would really help if I did. I might explain away a warm feeling as wishful thinking rather than the Spirit if it generally comes around at will. But why did I go for years without any reduction in my substantial feelings of betrayal and doubt about a particular aspect of Church history even though I was desperately pleading with God for answers? And why, when I had long since decided no answer that would satisfy me was forthcoming did I receive an answer that not only completely satisfied, but humbled, awed, and instructed me in four simple words spoken through the Spirit to my heart? I would agree that we must be careful about the conclusions we jump to when we feel something sweet or good, but how do I explain the remark of a young Chinese investigator who asked the missionaries teaching her, “Why do I feel cold every time I read the Book of Mormon? Every time I even touch this book, I feel cold, and I don’t understand that.” I promise you that no missionary had taught this girl to expect a cold feeling in association with the Book of Mormon. This is not part of our language of the Spirit at all. It was only with patient listening that they could discern that this cold feeling she was struggling to describe in English was not negative in any way for her, but rather the feeling we might describe as goosebumps, a concept they had never discussed and for which they had no mutual vocabulary. So how do we decide what to believe? No simple formula exists that easily applies to all situations, but there is a language of the Spirit that we learn through experience, practice, and attention, and that uses both feelings and reason to communicate.

How do we deal with doubt, disillusionment, or betrayal?

So assume that we have some feelings or insights that we tentatively conclude to mean that God is trying to communicate with us, and assume that over time we conclude that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, or that the Church is true and something we should join. Then assume we learn something shocking or threatening about the Church’s history or leaders or claims. Critics often seem to assume that most Church members are carefully protected from such things, and that if exposed the member will quickly put their Church-related ideas aside as false or unimportant. This has not been my experience. In fact, I have been interested to observe how many Church members, including missionaries, have indeed been exposed to much of the faith-undermining material floating around, and how many of them have taken the time to honestly consider its implications. Critics often cannot understand how someone could honestly consider such material without giving up on the Church unless they were self-deceived, irrational, or in denial.

Decades ago Leon Festinger created cognitive dissonance theory to explain why people hold on to religious beliefs despite the failed prophecies of their leaders. He found that many members of a group he studied who anticipated the end of the world on a given date actually became even more committed when the date came and went with no apocalypse in sight. I read his book, When Prophecy Fails, with considerable interest several years ago as I tried to make sense of how a charismatic and well-read Sunday School teacher in my ward had gradually created a kind of cult following that eventually resulted in her excommunication along with that of many people dear to me. I had been spared a similar fate, perhaps only because I was away on a mission during the time of her greatest influence and self-deception, but I had been deeply influenced by this teacher despite much that should have alerted me to trouble. I wanted to understand why it took us so long to realize she was wrong.

Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance basically says that when people encounter information that challenges their existing beliefs or behavior they will feel tension which they will be motivated to reduce by changing their beliefs or behavior to be more internally consistent. This suggests that if we are doing things that require sacrifice and investment, and we believe ourselves to be reasonable people, as we will tend to conclude that the Church which requires these behaviors must be true or, being rational beings, we wouldn’t do them. Thus we unwittingly increase our commitment to the organization that requires these difficult tasks in order to justify our behavior. We organize a world view to explain our sacrifices, and when we get new information that doesn’t seem to fit with old paradigms we prefer to ignore or discredit the information rather than replace the paradigm we have invested in so heavily. Cognitive dissonance theory supports, at some level, the view long-held by many sociologists and psychologists that religion is an irrational, fear-based choice and that people who are religious are too afraid to change their beliefs when confronted with obvious contradictions. Religion is seen as an inherently irrational choice that must be explained away as the result of some kind of brainwashing. The premise is that no rational person would believe in the delusional vision of an obvious sex offender like Joseph Smith, for example, so if people are committed to such a belief system it is because they are duped, irrational, or in denial. Their beliefs are not modified by enlightening evidence that would normally cause them to see things differently because they are acting in very committed ways such as paying tithing, attending meetings, sitting through weird temple rites, going to girl’s camp, and publicly espousing their beliefs. These actions cause them to believe that the Church must be true because they believe they are rational people and would not be doing all these weird things the Church expects unless it were true.

More recently, sociologists Stark and Finke7 have amassed considerable research evidence to support a different theory based on the assumption that religious people truly are rational within the choices available to them, and that we make religious choices to increase the benefits we obtain for the investment we make, much the way we make economic decisions. People in demanding religions are more committed to them, not because it is the only way to make sense of their own irrational sacrifices, but because they accrue many benefits like social support, free food, decision-making rules, opportunities to develop talents, meaningful activities, answers to life’s deeper questions, and closeness to God that are possible because they and others are making these sacrifices, making them cost-effective.

I wonder if there is not truth to both viewpoints. I think I have seen people become more committed to weird religious beliefs as they sacrifice for them and then justify their sacrifices. I also see rational people who sacrifice for their religious beliefs because they get a lot back as they do so, and when they don’t think they are getting much back they complain about it, adjust what they are doing, and cut back rather than just becoming more and more committed. People who put cognitive dissonance forward as the explanation for the high level of commitment and sacrifice among some Mormons ignore that by the time the prophecy of the world ending in Festinger’s study had failed three times virtually everyone left the group, cognitive dissonance theory or no. People may rationalize their behavior and beliefs for a time, but they will not continue to do so indefinitely unless their beliefs are producing the expected payback–as long as they have reasonable choices about what to believe.

I do see people stick with beliefs that no longer hold water, and I worry about doing that, as when a woman talks herself into staying with an abusive partner because she cannot tolerate the cognitive dissonance of imagining herself divorced, or because she has already devoted so much to the marriage that it feels like it must be worth perpetuating and that any day it will get better in proportion to all she has sacrificed for it. However, it is not universally problematic that people behave in committed ways and thereby increase their commitment. It is hard to imagine that many families would endure at all if parents or spouses decided to undo their commitments to one another whenever new and unsettling information about their spouses or children came to light. Most babies would not survive the first diaper change if parents did not learn how to cope with a little cognitive dissonance. Most of us recognize that the short-term costs of commitment can be high and must continually be offset if we are to stick with any social structure long enough to gain the long-term benefits. There are many advantages to not changing our belief system too readily as this provides stability and decision rules that keep us from stalling in uncertainty and chaos. Further, we recognize that we all make commitments to a person, organization, or belief system without adequate information, because the only way to truly understand what we are committing to is have already made the commitment and lived it for a lifetime, which is impossible.

So how does one tell the difference between a marriage that should be abandoned as dangerous from one that should be endured, though flawed, so that a good greater than this moment’s disillusionment can be obtained? I cannot imagine a clear-cut answer to this question. I can only say that I believe legitimate questions deserve to be raised and addressed in a rigorous and fair manner. I also believe that people can be wrong about religion. I have learned specifically that I can be wrong about what I expect from God and from religious leaders. I remember a discussion about apostasy in a Relief Society class in which someone commented that one reason people leave the church is because they become disillusioned, and that therefore we need to be careful not to become disillusioned. But it seems to me that disillusionment is a very good thing. I do not want to live a life based on illusions, and being disillusioned is very valuable to me. I suspect that I have many illusions, many expectations and beliefs that are not well-founded and that I am well-served to be rid of. My experience is that the hardest illusions for me to get rid of are illusions about control in a relatively dangerous world, and sometimes my religion is more like a set of superstitions to ward off the boogie man than a set of principles for coming to know God. I’m grateful, too, for God winking at such ignorance in the words of Paul,8 but I pray that He will, like a sensitive therapist, help me to gradually put down my defenses and illusions to build a more grounded and honest trust in Him despite my challenges and losses, not just in hopes of sidestepping them.

I don’t know of hard and fast rules for intellectually honesty. I have wondered what would happen if I were to take a lie detector test about whether I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. But I do believe that intellectual honesty does not require us to simply jettison beliefs when there is evidence to dispute them. Nor do I expect the intellectually honest to ignore intellectual challenges without honestly grappling with them. But I hope to remember that tolerance for ambiguity and paradox are generally seen as a sign of maturity, not a sign of irrational thinking, and I assume that this is true in religious matters as well.

I am particularly interested in the impact of betrayal on religious belief, because it seems to be at the heart of matters that cause people the most grief about the Church. I have noticed that many of the people I have known who have left the Church did not do so because they believed too little, but because they believed too much. In their excessive idealism, they have held Church leaders or God to expectations which were inevitably disappointed, and they have felt betrayed. They have not believed God when He told them that ours is a lonely, dreary world where we will surely die, and they have chosen instead to believe another version of reality, one which claims that they can be protected from being molested, disappointed, or made afraid. They have been angry at God or other Church leaders for not keeping promises which God has not, in fact, made. I note with interest that of all the names for the Savior in holy writ, He is never called the Preventer. Agency is the plan, and this means that all of us, including Church leaders, learn by our mistakes and are subject to misinformation, blindness, hubris, and error. The old joke is too often true: In the Catholic church everyone says the pope is infallible but nobody believes it; and in the Mormon church everybody says the prophet is fallible but nobody believes it.

When Christ asks the question of His remaining disciples, “will ye also go away?” it seems to be in recognition that they may be feeling betrayed or disillusioned by His words and requirements, as others were. Their response is not brimming with irrational enthusiasm. They seem to say, somewhat wistfully, as if recognizing that perhaps leaving would be an easier choice, “to whom, Lord, shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” We do not leave because we are blind to the challenges or brainwashed into commitment, but because we will have more cognitive dissonance, more to explain to ourselves, if we leave. We have found here things that we hold dear, that support and enrich our lives. We, like the reluctant disciples of old, have found here words of eternal life, which is to say that we have found knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. These relationships, these pearls of great price, are worth the sacrifices and the disappointments and the askance looks of our friends who wonder what we could be thinking.

And so we say with the father of the lunatic child, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” We recognize that our beliefs matter more than our doubts, though we will have some of both. We recognize the need for commitment despite uncertainty, frustration, and disillusionment. In fact, people who study long-term marriage relationships tell us that they go through four predictable stages that include both high hopes and deep discouragement. Psychologist Allen Bergin proposes that these stages are equally applicable in all long-term, committed relationships, including relationships with children, parents, the Church, and God.

The first of these stages is a honeymoon stage of blinding idealism, in which we delight in our new partner and are sure that the problems faced by other couples, other parents, other believers will not bother us. We are in love, full of hope, enthusiastic about our new relationship. We relish being loved and cherished, but even more we relish being someone who is easily loving and good. We are sure we have found a wonderful spouse, child, church, relationship with God, and we are also sure that this will last. We finally know how to be in a relationship, or how to get answers to prayers, or how to be part of a community. We are happy, sure that little problems that come up will be readily resolved. This stage lasts weeks and sometimes years, but it intermittently gives way to the second stage of committed relationships, the power struggle.

As the power struggle gradually takes over more and more of the relationship we begin to wrestle for control. We may try any of a number of old or new tactics to try to coerce, cajole, reason, manipulate, blackmail, convince, bribe, punish, or flatter our partner in the relationship into changing to give us what we want, whether what we want is a spouse who does the laundry or a God who explains Himself to our satisfaction. While some of these tactics may work with spouses or children or parents, they do not work with God. He invites us to change instead, and this is often very painful. We want the world back the way it was when we were innocent and full of hope and before we had discovered the snakes in the grass, but He evicts us from the garden and tells us to keep walking. Much of our behavior is about trying to get safe, and much of His is about trying to help us see that our safety lies in our submission to and trust in Him despite pain and struggle, not in our freedom from physical or emotional discomfort. We keep thinking that there are answers and solutions to all difficulties if we can just get someone else to see our point of view and give us what we know we need. And that someone else keeps holding out on us, keeping us guessing as to what to try next. We are sure that if we could just change them we could get things back to the honeymoon, not realizing that this is not only impossible, but unhelpful.

The third stage of committed relationships, which usually comes after years of vacillating between lingering idealism and the increasing futility of the power struggle, is withdrawal. At this stage we essentially give up, although we may not leave. We resign ourselves to not really getting what we want, not really changing the other party, and not really being happy. We are tired of fighting, but we can’t recoup our lost idealism. We go through the motions of relationship but we are frustrated and we feel more or less betrayed and misunderstood. This period of withdrawal allows us to regain some independence, pursue other sources of satisfaction, and develop other talents and interests. If we are lucky we begin to work on ourselves–whom we can change–instead of working on our partner whom we cannot change. With the Church or with God, this means we begin to face that there are some questions we will not get answered, some differences that will not be worked out, some losses that will not be prevented. This is a risky stage, a stage when some people decide there is nothing to hold onto because they are no longer in love (stage 1) and no longer have hope for change (stage 2). But as we continue to work on ourselves, see reality more clearly, and resolve our own issues we have a chance of moving toward stage 4.

The fourth and final stage of committed relationships is about renewal. Not exactly a renewal of the honeymoon, but a more mature, realistic, and truly loving renewal. We come to accept our spouse or our parents or the Church, and we come to accept ourselves. We allow God to run the universe, and we become more content to let go of things we cannot change. A deeper, more mature love begins to emerge, with fewer power struggles and less disengagement. We do not need to see all the answers, and we do not need perfection by our standards in order to not be embarrassed or ashamed of our Church, our partner, or our God. We reinvest in the relationship, not because we have decided to risk yet one more time that we will not get hurt only to have the rug pulled out yet one more time from under us, but because we have learned that hurt can be survived, that this is a risk worth taking, and that it does not mean we cannot be happy or that we are irrational suckers or that we are doomed to failure because we take another chance on trust or because we fail or are failed again. We see ourselves and our partner more realistically, and we do not run from either vision. We recognize that we can be hurt by being betrayed or we can be hurt by not trusting, but we don’t get the no-hurt choice because there isn’t one, at least not until we simply choose not to read betrayal into every ecclesiastical failure, or abandonment into every unanswered prayer.

I have been through these stages on many issues, and to different degrees, and I still slip into illusionary fantasies, angry power struggles, and despairing withdrawal, but I am learning that with time and honesty I can get to a better place than any of these. My growth is facilitated by asking myself questions like “what does it mean to me about me, or about God, that such and such is the case?” “Where have I faced this particular kind of betrayal before, and am I bringing some of that history to this new situation, over-reading it in the process?” “What illusions might God be inviting me to let die so that something new and truthful can be born?” In this vein I appreciate the following from C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory:

If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellant; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellant which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know….the truth we need most is hidden precisely in the doctrines you least like and least understand. Scientists make progress because scientists instead of running away from such troublesome phenomena or hushing them up, are constantly seeking them out. In the same way, there will be progress in Christian knowledge only as long as we accept the challenge of the difficult or repellant doctrines. A ‘liberal’ Christianity which considers itself free to alter the Faith whenever the Faith looks perplexing or repellent MUST be completely stagnant. Progress is made only into a resisting material.

I believe that progress is made not only in Christian knowledge, but in personal healing and growth, as we seek out of the puzzling and repellant doctrines that which we do not yet know and need to know, the truths that will set us free from our illusions, our betrayals, and our losses. So we deal with doubt, disillusionment, and betrayal by recognizing that they are inevitable, facing our own history and searching for healing so that our past losses and traumas do not overly influence our current sight, seeing the predictable cycles of any committed relationship so that we do not overact to the belief challenges of a given committed relationship, and leaning into the puzzling and repellant doctrines at our growing edge rather than shrinking from their demands. While cognitive dissonance theory says we behave primarily to justify our beliefs, faith teach us that both commitment and uncertainty are valuable tools that can be used to clarify our beliefs and increase our trust in God.

So how do we free ourselves once and for all of self-doubt, doubts about the Church, or doubts about the existence, nature, or trustworthiness of God?

Of course, we don’t. Faith is an imperfect knowledge, and as such is always a choice among options. If God can ask the brother of Jared, who has heard His voice and seen His finger, “Believest thou the words which I shall speak?”, then certainly we also have a choice to believe or not, regardless of our previous spiritual experiences or our intellectual skills. We believe because we are trying to learn object constancy with God, to trust that He is still there even when we cannot feel Him, and that He will tell us the truth, even when it seems improbable. The brother of Jared’s answer to this question is, “Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth and canst not lie.” He believes God, not because God’s words make sense, for he has yet to hear them, but because he has learned through the long struggles of a committed relationship to trust the Lord. He has learned that He is a God of truth and He does not lie–not about painful things like mountain waves and torrential seas, and not about hopeful things like a land of promise on the other side of a long journey.

Perhaps my favorite part of this story is Moroni’s commentary on it in Ether 3:17-18, pointed out to me by my daughter:

And now, as I, Moroni, said I could not make a full account of these things which are written, therefore it sufficeth me to say that Jesus showed himself unto this man in the spirit, even after the manner and in the likeness of the same body even as he showed himself unto the Nephites.

And he ministered unto him even as he ministered unto the Nephites; and ALL this, that THIS man might know that he was God, because of the many great works which the Lord had showed unto him.

Although we know him as the brother of Jared, God knew this man by name, as he knows each of us by name, and I believe that He desires to save us, redeem us, and bring us back into His presence, one person at a time, as we come to trust, with the brother of Jared, that He is a God of truth and cannot lie. I have come to trust this God, and the prophet He called, and the Church He organized, not because I have won all my power struggles with any of them, but because as I have wrestled with God in the swamplands on the perpetual eve of my imagined imminent destruction, light has, eventually, dawned, and God has, eventually, kept His promises to me. Of this I humbly testify.


1 John 6:68.

2 Mark 9:23.

3 1 Nephi 11:4.

4 Ether 3:11.

5 Genesis 32:7.

6 Genesis 32, extracts from verses 7, 9-12, 24, 26, 28.

7 Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2000).

8 Acts 17:30.

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