One morning recently, I was reading a religious text that made me angry. The chapter began this way: “Christlike attributes are gifts from God. Faith, hope, and charity come as you make righteous choices. Ask your Heavenly Father to bless you with these attributes.”
I’ve always bought into the idea that obedience brings promised blessings, and so I have been scrupulously obedient to all the tenets of my faith for as long as I can remember. But as of that morning, I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of the promised land. I was well over 40 years old, and Hope, as I had always understood it, never seemed so far away. My faith felt more fragile than it had ever been.
And here was a religious scholar telling me that my problem was a lack of faith.
His words felt a little bit like a well-fed parent telling a starving child, “You know, you wouldn’t be hungry if you would just eat, but I’m not going to give you any of this food until you stop with that nasty hungry feeling. Knock it off.”
As I read, I realized that opening the scriptures no longer felt like a salve, but a painful reminder of how the Gospel wasn’t working for me.
I turned to Hebrews and read in chapter 11, how Noah, moved by fear, built an ark. How Moses went on a journey–which, by the way, was filled with frustration and for all we know, ultimate failure in his eyes. He never made it across the Jordan, after all. Paul includes many men–and women–of faith in his list.
And then he makes this decidedly unhappy observation: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
I’ve operated on that kind of hope for decades, and that morning I thought… really? This is supposed to help shore up my hope? Telling me that I will likely have to wait for the next life to see any results? Do you realize how long people live today? I could be doomed to suffer for another 50 years or more?
But then I had this mental image of Noah building this ark. Of Moses loading his mule. Of Sara pitching a tent. These are ACTIONS–gritty, daily, human actions.
And I realized with absolute clarity: Those actions are faith. That’s hope.
Faith and hope are not a rush of chemicals or feel-good hormones surging through your veins. They are not feelings at all. They are actions you engage in DESPITE all feelings to the contrary.
Faith is getting out of my car and walking into the school and opening my classroom door when what I really want to do is shift the car into drive and never come back. It’s laying the first landscape brick in the series even when I have NO idea how I’m going to move the stump or the boulder or pipe lying in my path. It’s loving hordes of wayward people even when much of what they say or do fills me with despair.
The despair is not a symptom of failed hope or faith. That’s just a logical result of watching people you love make choices that are likely to bring them pain.
Faith is not in maintaining optimism about the future, but about acting and listening and loving despite a future that has all the indicators of being full of darkness and difficulty.
And so, as I sat there, the Bible in my lap, I thought of all the good things I have made happen in the past four decades–and not because I accomplished them all on my own or because any one person or situation was completely transformed.
Three summers ago, I decided to solve a sticky landscaping problem. We have impossibly rocky soil and a steeply graded lot. For 15 years, I have failed to establish a viable lawn, so I decided to build a series of terraced grow boxes. Hacking anything level into our ground proved to be grueling work. Sometimes six feet of wall will take me a month to construct.
But I laid the first brick and then I laid the next one, and eventually a passing neighbor showed up with his backhoe to tear out a stubborn stump. I kept laying brick and another neighbor showed up to help me understand which pipes I could cut and which ones I needed to dig down deeper. I continued, and dug around a giant rock until it was wholly free, but still too heavy to lift out, and a passing stranger moved it for me. Three years later, I still haven’t completed the project, but I haven’t quit either.
That is hope. We may not accomplish any of the things we thought we would when we were children. We may not even be doing a very good job at anything we are currently attempting to do. But as long as we keep DOING–as long as we keep engaging in the faith-filled, gritty details of life–leading the donkey, driving one more nail in the ark, pitching the tent–and rolling out of bed, morning after morning, God will keep sending men with backhoes when we get stuck–and because he does that, we can know that He is pleased with our efforts.
It is not sin to be frustrated with a lack of progress. It is normal to look at our families, our schools, this country–and to feel an occasional, crushing sense of despair. It is normal to fear all the pain guaranteed to wrench our souls, individually and collectively, in the future.
But faithful people continue to act. You are making good things happen in your life and the lives of others. You are facilitating miracles–maybe not the ones you think SHOULD be happening, but as long as you are moving forward, you can rest assured that God has not abandoned you.
Keep doing. Keep moving forward, until God tells you to hang a left. He has promised, “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.” (D&C 84:88; See also Psalms 91:11 and Luke 4 10-11)