Faith Means Fight

Cambridge, UK, July 2014

Cambridge, UK, July 2014

Thou art our rock, our fortress, and our might;
Thou, Lord, our captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, our one true light,
Alleluia, Alleluia!

– William Walsham How, “For All the Saints,” LDS Hymns #82

* * * * *

When it came time for the invocation of the Sunday Afternoon Session of General Conference, October 2014, Elder David Evans walked up to the microphone and thanked God—on behalf of millions—for the opportunity “to have our strength faithened” through the talks and hymns of the conference.[1]

And I’m probably never going to the Celestial Kingdom because I snickered out loud at that part of the prayer.

I should’ve controlled myself, but it just seemed so funny—in part, I suppose, because there’s a seed of truth in the misspeak. Isn’t “faithening” what we learn in Sunday School, or in seminary, or at Girls’ Camp? The teachings of Christ are supposed to infuse our lives with faith. In the decisions, trials, successes, fears, and blessings of mortality, we can either progress toward heaven or regress toward damnation, and the outcome depends on how well we trust God and believe in His Son. So we faithen when we pray for guidance, or when we change our hearts in response to the Spirit, or when we thank the Father—as Elder Evans did—for our blessings.

But I laughed because I remember learning parts of speech in third grade. Faith goes in the “person/place/thing” category, not with “action words” like run, eat, or breathe. In spite of Elder Evans’s prayer, you can’t actually “faith” anything, or promise “to faith” every morning, or say you “faithed” or went “faithing”—and adding “en” doesn’t make it work either.

Faith’s a noun, not a verb.

Which is interesting, since we learn from Church doctrine that faith is supposed to denote doing. True to the Faith even defines it as “a principle of action.”[2] But the word itself carries no implicit movement or deed—it only describes the feeling or motivation behind a given action. Enactments of faith are all pretty diverse. We say that Indiana Jones walked off the edge of a cliff because of faith.[3] Frank Sinatra crooned that young lovers can trust in happy tomorrows because of faith.[4] Gordon B. Hinckley chose to stay on his mission in England because of faith. People get married because of faith, Moses split the Red Sea because of faith, and I once watched a Ukrainian woman give up coffee because of faith.

What ties these things together? Faith is not what they did, but what made them do it. So what’s the deed? What’s the action? Where’s the verb that unites all these faith-induced outcomes?

I want to know the doing part of faith—the thing that makes it a “principle of action”—the element that transforms a feeling into a feat.

Because I know myself just a little too well. Without understanding what it means to faithen, I probably won’t. I’ll worry. I’ll hesitate. I’ll stagnate. I’ll fear.

I’ll meander along the least resistant pathway, grateful to avoid confrontation and doubt.

And by doing this, I’ll forfeit the exalted potential the Father laid out when He made me.

* * * * *

I’ve been looking for months for a verb that means faith. In scriptures, in talks, in the temple, in thoughts—I’ve searched everywhere for answers.

The most compelling of which I found in the storage room of my apartment.

That’s where I go when there’s trouble I need to sort out in my mind, or when a prayer needs to be extra private. I go there because I hate crying in public, and “public” means anywhere anyone is.

And I go there to pretend I’m not grown up and supposedly independent.

One day in the storage room I leaned against the spare freezer as I talked to Mom on the phone, seeking guidance and comfort in a torrent of decisions and disappointments. Mom waited as I vented my fears. She asked questions every once in a while, but mostly she just listened to her daughter sigh and cry a bit and face the messiness of a life that doesn’t work with molds and plans.

Then out of the blue, she launched into a story that struck me at first as non-sequitur.

“I was really scared when I found out I was pregnant with you,” she said, and I wondered where she was heading. “I’d been so sick when I was pregnant with Hannah, and it seemed impossible to go through all that again with a one-year-old crawling around. Plus, Dad and I were getting the house ready to move in, we were still so young, we had church responsibilities, and we struggled to keep everything balanced.”

Sounds tough, I thought, but what on earth does this have to do with my situation? But I kept quiet, sliding down against the freezer until I crouched on the laminate floor.

Mom went on, “So even though I had always wanted lot of kids, I started to think I wasn’t cut out to be a mom. It was too much. I couldn’t do it.”

She paused for a moment. By the choke in her voice I could tell she was telling me something that still stung, more than two decades later.

“Then after a few weeks, there was blood. Spots of blood. I panicked—that’s the first sign of a miscarriage. I knew something was wrong. We called the doctor, but what could he do? It was out of his hands, out of ours. We were helpless. We just had to wait.”

I leaned my head against the freezer door and blinked back tears. She’s never shared this, I thought, not this part of the story. Sure, I’d known there were problems when she was expecting me. But the fears, the doubts, the unsureness, the despair—she had kept this part private until right that instant. Only now, my mind raced, when the daughter she worried she’d lose is heartbroken and crying to her over the phone. Only now when I know a bit more what it’s like to watch hopes wither and die. Only now is she baring this part of her soul.

Our situations were separated by decades and dimensions.

But they were bound together by blows and broken hearts.

Mom swallowed hard. “Right then, it all changed. All those things I’d been scared of—the morning sickness, the hassle of having two kids, the inadequacies—none of it mattered to me anymore. What was sickness and labor if it meant keeping the baby? I’d go through it—I’d go through anything—just so I didn’t lose you.

“I told God I was willing to fight,” she concluded. “I wanted to fight for my baby.

* * * * *

Paul encouraged Timothy to “[f]ight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12).

Because faith is all about fighting.

It’s about what we fight for.

It’s about what we fight against.

It’s about why we fight, and how long, and how hard.

Faith’s the motive that gets us geared up for the battles—the life-or-death skirmishes—that promise to tax all our effort and strength. Faith leads us to tear a scrap off our cloaks, scrawl on it “In memory of [all the things we put worth in],” and wave it around as we ward off our foes (Alma 46:12). It makes us clasp our shields through long combats (Ephesians 6:16). It reveals to our eyes “they that be with us” in chariots of fire—our angelic allies in our clashes with fear (2 Kings 6:16).

Faith is feelings and symbols that lead us to an action.

And fighting is the action itself.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once said: “[W]e cannot sign on for [any] moment of . . . eternal significance and everlasting consequence without knowing it will be a fight—a good fight and a winning fight, but a fight nevertheless.”

He made this comment to a group of BYU students who crowded into the Marriott Center to hear an apostolic message catered just to their needs. Discerning those needs, Elder Holland chose to talk about confidence—a noun that means “with faith.” He emphasized that even after important spiritual moments we may still endure doubt and discouragement. “[O]pposition turns up almost anyplace something good has happened,” he said. “It can happen when you are trying to get an education. It can hit you after your first month in your new mission field. It certainly happens in matters of love. . . .

“[B]ut once there has been genuine illumination,” he insisted, “beware the temptation to retreat from a good thing. If it was right when you prayed about it and trusted it and lived for it, it is right now. Don’t give up when the pressure mounts.”

As an expert giver-upper, I’ve gotta ask, Fine, but how? How can anyone keep faith or confidence despite opposition and worry and fear?

The answer: By fighting.

As it was with Moses and the children of Israel, Elder Holland continued, “our faith will be tested as we fight through . . . self-doubts and second thoughts. Some days we will be miraculously led out of Egypt—seemingly free, seemingly on our way—only to come to yet another confrontation, like all that water lying before us. At those times we must resist the temptation to panic and to give up. At those times fear will be the strongest of the adversary’s weapons against us.”

Fight, confrontation, adversary, weapons—the words of wars and battles. The scriptures are full of this combative language. Because to gain faith and to keep it, we’ve got to be willing to fight.

And, like all gospel principles, faith comes with a promise.

If we can dig up in our souls the drive to wrangle for our righteous desires, then “the Lord shall fight for [us],” just as He did for Moses when He parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14:14).

It might seem impossible, out of our hands, and too much to expect. But sometimes God asks us to marry our will to His, and sometimes He wills us to fight for ostensibly impossible dreams. Like safe passage through a sea. Or a personal conversion. Or a successful mission. Or a happy marriage. Or a healthy child.

Sometimes spots of blood threaten those dreams.

But in our “fights of afflictions” we cannot give up (Hebrews 10:32). We must “[f]ight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). We must “finish [the] course” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Only then—armed for battles too big for our hearts and our might—only then may we “stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13).

* * * * *

Mom’s decision to fight marked the moment she shifted from fear into faith. Because, after all, her fight wasn’t really about saving my life. It was about helping her to rely on the One Whose power made heaven and earth, Who joined with her and my father in the miracle of creating the life that I’m living right now, Who preserved that life despite complications and blood in the earliest weeks of mortality. Through the battle Mom learned a trust that carried her through the births of nine additional healthy children—and through four miscarriages as well.

In the blessings and trials, Mom knew she could fight through her fears and her doubts. She could fight, because God was her Ally.

In another talk to a BYU audience, Elder Holland said: “When disappointment and discouragement strike—and they will—you remember and never forget that if our eyes could be opened we would see horses and chariots of fire as far as the eye can see riding at reckless speed to come to our protection. They will always be there, these armies of heaven, in defense of Abraham’s seed.” [5]

Life’s a battle—a struggle to live, a campaign to love, a conflict between hope and heartbreak.

There will be casualties.

Some dreams won’t pan out.

Some plans will fall through.

Some heart-wounds will sting long after scar tissue has grown over the slashes.

But “Abraham’s seed” will never fight alone.

Facing his own brutal frays, Paul encouraged Christians to keep running, in spite of the heat and danger of the combats we face: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses [of faith], . . . let us run with patience the race that is set before, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

God will carry us into battle. He’ll sustain and defend—just as long as we’re willing to fight.

Then someday, broken, beaten, bloody, and bruised, we will stand before our Ally, supported by His hand, and we’ll say:

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

——————————————————————————–

[1] See https://www.lds.org/general-conference/watch/2014/10?lang=eng&vid=3822416959001 and also David F. Evans, “Tenacity,” BYU Speeches, 4 November 2014. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/evans-david-f_tenacity/

[2] “Faith,” True to the Faith (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 54-56.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFntFdEGgws

[4] “There Are Such Things,” sung by Frank Sinatra.

[5] Jeffrey R. Holland, “For Times of Trouble,” BYU Speeches, 18 March 1980. My mom quoted this to me when we talked over the phone as she told me her story.