I originally wrote this for a talk I gave in church on February 28, 2016, on the topic of faith and growth.
When I got an acceptance letter to Harvard during my senior year of high school, my parents were happy, but a little worried. They were sure I would face attacks on my faith by the liberal scholars of Cambridge, MA. My patriarchal blessing even had a line about “bright intelligent people who would belittle my faith,” and these people seemed likely to be found at ivy league universities. I, however, was seventeen and unconcerned. My faith was unshakeable. I was ready to boldly stand up for my beliefs. I was totally prepared (even a little bit excited?) for my standards to be tested.
However, their fears all proved unfounded. I don’t remember ever being attacked for my faith at Harvard; in fact, everyone thought my religion was pretty cool, and protected my standards even more carefully than I did.
I was well prepared for something that never happened. But what I wasn’t prepared for at all were the attacks that came from within myself. There were so many things in the world that I didn’t know, that I had never thought about. The certainty that I had always felt crumbled into nothing. I felt like a cartoon character who runs off a cliff, and is perfectly fine until he looks down and realizes he is standing on nothing but air.
I tried talking to my Dad about what I was going through, and he told me to go read Alma 32. Now, if you have been a member of the church for a while, you have probably read Alma 32 many, many times. My reaction to being told to go read it was something like the reaction of that Old Testament king with leprosy when the prophet tells him to take a bath in the river. “A bath? Really? I have leprosy here, I need a real solution!” I did it anyway, and honestly didn’t feel like it helped much. I actually didn’t realize until years later that it was exactly what I needed, though not at all in the way I had interpreted it at the time.
Alma 32 is an extended metaphor of how faith is like a seed. It’s often interpreted with the message that small things can grow into great things, or that faith has to be carefully nurtured in order to grow, or that we can tell if something is a “good seed” by the plant that eventually grows out of it. Here is a selection:
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
All of these messages are lovely and useful, but they weren’t helping me at the time. I felt like I was doing everything I was supposed to do, but it wasn’t working the way I had been promised it would.
Then one day I had this insight: everything changes when you look at it from the point of view of the seed.
From the seed’s perspective, it’s living a perfectly happy life as a seed when suddenly, out of nowhere, an overwhelming green force rises up within it, pressure building and building until finally the seed splits apart.
If you’re the gardener, you know that the seed has to split open if it ever wants to be more than just a seed, but I imagine the seed might not see it that way. It doesn’t know that it has the potential to be something else. It doesn’t know that it will die if it remains as it is. It only knows that it is being split apart, that its whole world is fracturing, and it doesn’t know why.
The seed as it was is gone forever, consumed by the rapid growth of the new plant. It has to die in order to live. We see this same pattern everywhere in nature, from the birth of new stars from the dust of old ones, to the tiniest mustard seed, which shouldn’t surprise us. C.S. Lewis wrote that miracles are nothing but a retelling in small letters of the same thing that is written across the entire universe in letters too large for most of us to see. Death and rebirth is the central metaphor of our faith: Christ dies, and is resurrected; our old self “dies” in the waters of baptism and a new self is born. We see, and yet we always forget, that in order for something to be born, something old must die. We forget that things tend to be born in fire, in blood, in pain.
This is what was happening to my faith, although I did not realize it until much later. The old faith that I had had as a child had to be split open in order to progress. There is another C.S. Lewis quote that I love about constructing faith:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” ~C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
We often speak of “loss of faith” as a terrible tragedy, and something that can be avoided at all costs by careful spiritual self-care. But some loss of faith is simply part of the natural cycle of growth. We are in a constant state of growth and change, a constant cycle of death and rebirth. We have all lost the faith we had on the day we were baptized. We have lost the faith we had last year, even last week. The question is, what have we replaced it with?
In my own life, I did eventually come out the other side of my first crisis of faith. It took a long time; years. I had to rebuild every element of my faith from the ground up, and what I had at the end of the process was quite different from what I’d had going in. But it was the process that gave me the beginning of my adult faith. Since then, I’ve experienced many doubts, questions, and re-evaluations, but they don’t shake me to the core the way they did once, because having experienced it, I have a better idea of what is happening.
When you feel like you’re being split apart, like pieces of you are changing faster than you can keep up, don’t panic: God is building something far better out of you than what you had in mind. Nothing is ever truly lost, and if it is, then perhaps it needed to be. The important thing is to keep going. Faith, like everything else in life, doesn’t grow continuously in one straight line. In a constant cycle of death and rebirth, you are becoming the person God needs you to be.
Here is a final quote from Thomas S. Monson:
“In the search for our best selves, several questions will guide our thinking: Am I what I want to be? Am I closer to the Savior today than I was yesterday? Will I be closer yet tomorrow? Do I have the courage to change for the better?
“Remember that you do not walk alone. … As you walk through life, always walk toward the light, and the shadows of life will fall behind you. As I [have] turned to the scriptures for inspiration, a particular word [has] stood out time and time again. The word [is] ‘come.’ The Lord said, ‘Come unto me.’ He said, ‘Come learn of me.’ He also said, ‘Come, follow me.’ I like that word, come. My plea is that we would come to the Lord.”
~Thomas S. Monson, Feb. 2010