Summary: We have been told that faith is a gift from God but we have also been told that faith is something we have to put forth an effort to achieve. A gift is something given without needing to work for it, while something we’ve work hard for we’ve earned and therefore deserve. So is faith a gift or is it a reward? This article examines the teaching of Alma to the Zoramites on this subject.
In the Book of Mormon we read these familiar words: “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…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” (Alma 32:28).
Nearly all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are familiar with this verse of scripture. The context for it is a sermon that the prophet Alma preached in the land of Antionum to a group of people known as the Zoramites. These people had a strange belief in God and would worship once a week in a particular place where each person would offer the same, exact prayer, thanking God that they were his chosen people while everyone else was destined for hell.
In this prayer they also gave thanks that they were not deceived by the foolish traditions of the church of God that there would be a Christ who would come to save people from their sins. Then, when they were through offering this prayer they would leave their house of worship and behave anyway they wanted to until they returned the following week to offer this same prayer again.
Although Alma had no success among the Zoramites, he did come across some who were poor, and because of their poverty they had been cast out of their house of worship. These people lamented to Alma that they were unable to worship God because of being denied entrance to the one and only place where they were allowed to pray and so they asked Alma what they should do about this.
Alma told them they didn’t need a special place to pray but could pray to God anywhere at any time. Then he taught them about the coming of Christ who would redeem his people, who were they who believed in the Son of God. However, these impoverished Zoramites had been taught that there was never going to be a Christ so it was hard for them to believe what Alma was telling them. That’s when Alma taught them the principle of faith.
In the LDS Church we have been told that faith is a gift from God but we have also been told that faith is something we have to put forth an effort to achieve. However, a gift is something given without needing to work for it, while something we’ve worked we’ ve earned and therefore deserve. So is faith a gift or is it a reward? Alma’s words to the Zoramites answers this question.
Alma had preached to the poor Zoramites about Christ but they had a hard time accepting his word and wanted proof that what he was saying was true. Alma replied, “there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe. Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it” (verses 17,18). Alma went on to say, “Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words” (verse 26).
When the LDS missionaries teach the gospel it is to people who, like the Zoramites, don’t know if what they are saying is true or not. In fact, some of the things that the missionaries teach about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ can sound rather strange and quite different from what other denominations believe. Therefore, not knowing for sure that what they are being told is true, people have to accept on faith what the missionaries are telling them. But how do we get that faith?
Alma told the Zoramites to try an experiment. He likened his words to a seed and just like we can’t tell a good seed from a bad one just by looking at them the only real way to tell is by planting the seeds and then give them what they need to grow. If, after doing this, the seed germinates and begins to sprout up above the ground we know that it is a good seed. But, if after giving it all the nourishment it needs and nothing happens then we know it was a bad seed.
However, the point of planting a seed is not just to find out if it is good or not. We plant seeds for the express purpose of growing something that will someday produce fruit for us to harvest and eat. (In this case, the word “fruit” is generic and includes all edible produce.) Therefore, if a seed begins to sprout then we have to continue helping it to grow by nourishing it so that it will produce the fruit we hope to someday harvest from it.
But we can’t plant a seed in the ground without doing nothing else and expect it to sprout, and neither can we neglect the plant once it sprouts and expect it to eventually produce an abundant supply of fruit. It takes continual effort of caring for the plant in order for it to grow to its full potential.
And the same is true of faith. For it to grow takes giving it nourishment and caring for it just as a farmer does with his plants. If we fail to do that, either our faith will not grow because our ground is barren or it will wither and die when it is subjected to the heat of criticism or choked with doubt.
Alma taught “if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold… by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof” (verses 41.42).
But what must we do to nourish the word of God so we can tell if it is true or not? And if we discover that God’s word is true what must we do to help our faith in it to grow stronger? In addition to this, since the point of planting seeds is not just to have a strong, healthy plant but to have one that has an abundance of fruit, what kind of fruit does our faith in God produce?
This was the very question the Zoramites wondered about so “they sent forth unto him (Alma) desiring to know… how they should plant the seed, or the word of which he had spoken, which he said must be planted in their hearts; or in what manner they should begin to exercise their faith” (Alma 33:1).
Alma explained, “even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words” Alma 32:27). The planting of the seed of faith begins with a desire to know if what we’ve heard is true and it’s the sincerity of our desire that is the crucial ingredient. For example, if we look at two seeds and don’t care if they are good or not then there’s no reason for us to worry about them. But if we wanted to plant a garden then that knowledge becomes critically important because we don’t want to buy a bunch of seeds that are not good.
In the church we are taught a lot of different doctrines and it is easy for someone to question whether this or that doctrine is really important to keep or whether we can let this or that one slide. We can get so overwhelmed with all the things we are expected to do that it’s easy to convince ourselves that if we are just doing the basics, such as living the Word of Wisdom, attending church every week, and are at least making an attempt to fulfill our calling then that’s all we really need to do.
For example, men are told that they need to do their home teaching every month and most of the time no one checks to see if they’ve done it. We all lead busy lives and with more things to get done than we have time for, our home teaching is often put way down on our priority list. With an attitude such as this, it’s impossible to develop a genuine faith in the home teaching program even though we have been taught about its importance almost to the point of boredom. Then how do we develop our faith in this or any principle of the gospel?
Perhaps we can better understand this concept by way of an illustration. Tithing is a doctrine that most churches don’t talk about or don’t agree with, so the first time someone hears that the LDS church teaches they should give ten percent of their hard-earned money to this large, wealthy world-wide organization they have serious questions about why they need to live this principle. In other words, they wonder if this is truly the word of God or not.
Showing people verses from the Bible about tithing often doesn’t do much to convince them. In fact, Alma quoted three places in the scriptures to show the Zoramites that there was going to be a Christ but apparently that didn’t convince them. Then how do we plant the seed and how do we nourish it? In other words, how do we develop faith in the principle of tithing and what must we do to make our faith in it grow stronger?
This same situation existed in the days when Jesus lived on earth. He traveled from place to place preaching his gospel and although he drew large crowds and performed many miracles, there were not many who fully accepted his message. Some said he was a prophet, others said he was a good man, while others said he was deceiving the people. When questioned about the doctrines he taught Jesus replied, “if any man will do his (God’s) will he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).
If we want to know if the doctrine of tithing is from God and not from man, the only sure way to know is to live it. But first we have to have a desire to know if this doctrine is true. If knowing the answer won’t change what we do then we don’t really care whether paying tithing is necessary or not. With that kind of an attitude it is impossible for faith to take root let alone grow and produce fruit.
The person who has doubts about paying their tithing but desires to know if this is God’s law will pay their tithing and watch to see what happens. However, just like we don’t see immediate results after putting a seed in the ground, we also shouldn’t expect to see miraculous things happen the first time we pay our tithing. With a seed it takes time before we see the first signs of a sprout pushing its way through the dirt and if we are not watching carefully we can easily overlook it or mistake it for a weed.
In the same way, in the beginning our faith in paying tithing is small and fragile and those who are not familiar with the way God works can easily overlook or excuse away whatever blessing we do get for obeying this law. For that reason, to nourish our faith we must continue doing what we we’ve been told is the Father’s will which, in this case means to keep paying our tithing even if we don’t see any immediate observable results. As Alma says, this takes great diligence and patience.
But, in time, God will bless us for our faithfulness by helping us come to see and know for ourselves that tithing is a true principle of the gospel. That knowledge can come to us in many different ways. For some, it may come when they are low on money to pay their bills yet resolve to pay their tithing anyway. Then, sometimes in a miraculous way, extra money comes in and they suddenly have the funds to pay all of their bills. In cases like this our faith in paying tithing is instantly strengthened.
Or perhaps one day someone may come to realize that for some strange reason they are no longer having trouble making ends meet even though their bills and income have not changed. For someone else, they may come to know of God’s blessings because unexpected problems that would have crippled their budget are not happening as frequently as they once did or problems are fixed with little or no extra money being needed.
More often than not people’s faith in the principle of tithing grows so gradually that one day it dawns on them that they know that tithing is of God, even though they can’t point to any one specific instance in time when they came to that realization. It’s like watching children grow. They are growing every day right before our eyes but we don’t see it until one day we suddenly notice how much taller they are. Just like a plant, our faith in tithing can grow unnoticed but it is nonetheless growing stronger and stronger each time we live it.
And this same principle applies to all other doctrines of Christ. Most people don’t have a strong faith in every principle or doctrine of God. They may believe in some things and there may be many other things they’re not sure of. Alma said “even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for [only] a portion of my words” (verse 27).
If we only can have faith in just one thing, let that be our starting point and then move on to another doctrine. The more doctrines we live the stronger our faith grows in those principle. That applies to keeping the Word of Wisdom, saying our prayers every day, reading and studying the scriptures on a daily basis, doing our genealogy, attending our meetings, keeping the Sabbath day holy, doing our visiting or home teaching, going to the temple, or keeping any other commandment.
Perhaps one of the least observed commandments in the church is keeping the Sabbath day holy. For many people, this is a hard thing to do, especially for those who have small children. For some, because they don’t do any shopping on the Sabbath and attend their church meetings they consider this enough to be in compliance with this law but they see nothing wrong with mowing the law or fixing the car, or engaging in some sort of entertaining activity on the Sabbath such as going to a movie or playing sports. As such, these kinds of people don’t have a strong testimony of or faith in this principle of the gospel.
The reason why their faith in not growing in this area is because they don’t have a real desire to live this principle. To them, their faith in keeping the Sabbath day holy comes almost entirely from an intellectual understanding of the subject rather than from a sincere desire of the heart. But without that kind of desire faith cannot grow because it takes wanting to do the will of God as opposed to merely knowing the will of God.
This is the seed of faith that Alma was talking about. It’s having the desire to put a particular principle of the gospel into practice because we want to know with certainty if this is really what God wants us to do. It’s putting forth the diligence and patience necessary to do everything we can to nourish our faith. And if, after having done all we can and discovering that such a principle doesn’t bring a confirmation that itis of God, then, and only then, will we know with certainty that is was not a good principle.
But if the word is good, we will know because it will be God who gives us the confirmation through faith. We may plant a seed, give it water, pull out the weeds around it, fertilize the ground, and protect the plant from natural dangers but it is the plant that does all the growing and which produces all the fruit. The farmer merely provides the necessary ingredients the plant needs for it to grow.
In the same way, we must provide the soil in which faith can grow and produce godly fruit and that soil is found in the desires of our heart. But it is God who gives the increase (see 1 Corinthians 3:6,7). As Morroni explained, “Wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for you receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). It is after we have nourished the word of God through a sincere desire, and with great diligence and patience that we will begin to witness our faith growing but we will see it, not with our natural eyes, but through our spiritual eyes.
It is the Holy Ghost who witnesses to our spirit that the word of God is good and it is he who enlightens our understanding and enlarges our soul. This is what Alma meant when he said we will feel it swelling within our breasts (verse 28). It is through the power of the Holy Ghost that we can come to know the truth of all things. But we cannot be enlightened or come to know if something is true if we resist the Spirit and cast him away because of our unbelief.
As has been stated before, the reason why we plant a seed is not just to see something growing out of the ground but to have the fruit of that plant. In the same way, faith is like the plant on which the fruit grows but in order for there to be fruit the plant has to be healthy and strong. Thus, the greater our faith, the greater the fruit will be and it is the fruit of the Spirit that we desire most, which gives us an increase of “love, joy, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance” (Galatians 5:22,23). Yet, as wonderful as these things are the ultimate fruit of our faith, and that which is most delicious above all others, comes from the tree of life which gives us everlasting life.
But before there can be any fruit and before there can be any plant, there must be the care and attention to the seed.
See related articles at The Nature of Spiritual Growth and Teachings of the Book of Mormon