Saturday, May 16, 2009

Faith and the First Commandment

The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The first commandment is to have no other gods before Him. The first has always been a call to trust in the Lord. The second has always been a warning against idolatry. Often overlooked is the less-than-obvious truth that the principle and the commandment are the same.

President Kimball pointed out this relationship in the June, 1976 Ensign.

…“we learn from the scriptures that because the exercise of faith has always appeared to be more difficult than relying on things more immediately at hand, carnal man has tended to transfer trust in God to material things. Therefore, in all ages when men have fallen under the power of Satan and lost the faith, they have put in its place a hope in the “arm of flesh” and in “gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know.” (First Presidency Message, The False Gods we Worship)

Trusting in material things - in the arm of flesh - is one of the defining characteristics of our modern world. Certainly, there have been other ages guilty of this sin, but not to the degree that we are. Technology rules in almost every aspect of our lives. From the moment we wake up in the morning (to the sound of the trusted alarm clock), to the food we eat (that is grown, processed, and usually prepared by machines), our transportation to and from work, our education (mostly in front off a computer), even to our personal interactions (mostly done by phone, email or texting) we are completely surrounded by the craftsmanship - if not the craftiness - of men. There is no way to deny our trust in the arm of flesh.

Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing. If I get sick, I trust that the doctor will know how to treat my ailment. If I need help growing grapes, I call the county extension office for advice. If I need a baby-sitter, I can call a trusted neighbor. Most of the things that we do every day require that we trust something or someone. The Lord knows this and doesn’t expect otherwise. The first commandment doesn’t tell us to not trust others. It tells us to trust the Lord first. Of course, these other things can all too frequently occupy our favor and our excessive focus. We have the testimony of Jesus’ true followers in all ages that trusting in anyone else but Him for the really important things is fatal.

Many years ago, when whooping cranes were more common than they are now, a young injured bird lost its parents and was rescued and cared for by a the Oliver family. The Olivers lived in what was then the Dakota Territory where there were a lot of open fields. In just a short period of time, they had become quite attached to the bird and named him Bill.

Bill was allowed to wander wherever he chose and often went exploring. At night, though, he preferred the security of the hen house. He liked the Oliver’s and their home so much, in fact, that when autumn came, he decided to stick around for the winter in stead of flying south.

Bill liked to go on walks with the family and would even dance occasionally with Mr. Oliver. Once when a few other whooping cranes flew by, Bill called to them and spent an entire day trying to coax them into the Oliver’s yard to meet the family. But in the end, they were too shy. They were not as trusting in humans as Bill was.

One day Bill flew away from home and approached a boy that did not know him. The boy, taking advantage of the bird’s unexpected proximity threw a rock that hit Bill in the head and nearly killed him. Bill escaped to the woods to recover but then walked up to another stranger, who promptly shot him.

Bill’s death was a sad thing for the Olivers. In hindsight it almost seemed inevitable, though. Bill had come to trust people - all people. He never did make the distinction between the Olivers, who cared for him, and everybody else that saw him only as a wild bird. Bill put his trust in the wrong place. (For the full story of Bill see J.K. Terres ed. The Audubon Book of True Nature Stories.)

At a very elementary level, idolatry can be nothing more than misplaced trust, or putting the wrong priorities on the things that we trust. The Lord wishes that our trust in Him be more important than these many other objects of trust. This goes a good deal beyond the way the first principle of the gospel and the first commandment are often understood.

To ask if we have faith in Christ is far too often answered easily with an, “of course I believe in God.” if a higher faith is understood to mean trusting in Christ, an honest response might be that, “of course I have trust that He can save me.”

This is all fine and good but it isn’t what the ancients understood to be the most important part of religion. Part of the blame for this dilution of the meaning of faith is to be placed on inadequate biblical translations.

Very often when the phrase “faith in Christ” is used, the preposition “in” is the word used to convey the meaning of the Greek “eis”. While it is true that both words overlap in meaning and that “in” is often a good near equivalent of “eis,” there is a great deal lost with respect to the doctrine of faith when used this way. The Greek “eis” also means “unto” and implies a transfer from one thing or person to another. In the case of faith it means moving our trust from wherever we may have put it, to Christ.

Benjamin Warfield put it this way (referring to the passages in the New Testament mentioning faith in (eis) Christ): “A glance over these passages will bring clearly out the pregnancy of the meaning conveyed … what these passages express is an absolute transference of trust from ourselves to another, a complete self-surrender to Christ.” (See The Biblical Doctrine of Faith, in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. II, Biblical Doctrines.)

Faith in Christ thus requires that we put Him first, that we have no other gods before Him. In this light, many scriptures begin to make more sense. Take for instance Mathew 18:6 where we learn that those who offend a little one (or someone with the faith of a little one) are better off having never been born - even to the extent that it would be better for a millstone to be placed around the neck of such faith destroyers and that they be drowned in the depths of the sea.

These are strong words - perhaps the strongest words that Jesus is known to have spoken about anyone. It certainly seems excessive if an offense can be nothing more than a changing of belief. If, however, a child of God ceases living a Christ-focused life and begins following other priorities, much more is at stake. In fact, this becomes an issue of salvation, and its seriousness is obvious. If we further understand that abiding faith is based on a love of God then Christ’s strong words become even more understandable (c.v. Faith Abides: The offender has caused a child of God to stop loving Him, and be lost.

And yet, we ask ourselves, how can we come to have such focused and sincere faith? How can our trust in Christ, in whom we have not seen, be greater than the trust we have in ourselves? This may sound at first, like an impossible problem, but it doesn’t have to be. We can have a great deal of trust in our abilities and still recognize that all we can do will ultimately not guarantee us the greatest gift of all - Eternal Life.

Maybe we have come to realize the insignificance of our own abilities because of life’s challenging circumstances. Maybe we have come to realize our own limitations because of a devoted perspective to God. Maybe we are one of the few that seem born with a built-in compass pointing unerringly to Christ. Or maybe we still trust ourselves more than we trust Christ. This doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in Him. We do. It just means that in our effort to climb the mountain of Life, we are stuck in the forest and haven’t fully understood the significance of who we are and what is really worth striving for. The majesty of celestial truths remains hidden to us as we think only of material comforts.

And in fairness, most of us live much of our lives without this higher perspective. Our weekly promise to always remember Christ is usually attempted in paltry moments, maybe one or two times a day. Until we can do better than this – until we really do live Christ-centered lives – we have nobody but ourselves to blame for our lack of faith.

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