I start this essay concerned that my title may keep some readers from reading what I have to say. Seeing the word "miracle" and the seeming equation of "faith" and "love," some of those I most want to reach may quickly assume that this is an essay on "faith as wish-fulfillment" or "faith, love, and bliss in five easy steps." And so I want to emphasize at the outset that I do not see either faith or love as easy. In fact, my "personal reflections," as I call them, include the history of my difficulties in accepting love and exercising faith, two difficulties I believe to be closely related. But I want to stick with the word "miracle," even with the misunderstandings it may provoke, because it expresses what I believe to be a vital truth: that faith and love are means by which we may draw on and exercise divine powers, including the power of personal transformation. The word "miracle" also suggests to me that faith and love, though beyond our present ability fully to understand, can become beautifully and intensely real to those who experience them. Yet they and their fruits are so different from the grim routine (so-called) of everyday, that it is the inclination of almost everyoneeven of those who see and know the fruitsto question the evidence of their own experience. It is hard to accept as real what may become two of the most powerful realities in our lives.
I will be discussing the role faith and love have played both in my religious life and in my recent courtship and marriage. I am certainly not the first to have seen a profound analogyindeed, an inescapable linkbetween these two aspects of life. The Bible speaks of God's relation with his people in the language of marriage. Shakespeare, in The Winter's Tale, shows a marriage break apart when a husband cannot believe his wife to be as good and gracious as she seems to be. Before the marriage can be redeemed, he must learn the principle that will guarantee its redemption: First, he is told, "it is required you do awake your faith." Hawthorne wrote several stories demonstrating the destructive power of doubt, whether religious or marital. In one, Young Goodman Brown loses (or thinks he loses) his wife, whose name is Faith, and chooses to live thereafter a life of suspicion and gloom. More recently, Eugene England has applied Michael Novak's perceptions about marriage to life in the Church. I will be doing much the same thing, but focusing on the nature of faith and on insights peculiar to my own experience.
Getting married has been, for me, a miracle, and the marriage itself continues to be miraculous. For my wife, the marriage has been (so she and her parents tell me) a process of healing and restoration; for me, a process of revelation about myself and of personal change. I say this recognizing that for some of my best friends, including my wife in her previous marriage, things have not turned out happily or well. In fact, for years it was the fear of just such disasters that kept me from getting married. Would I marry the wrong person? Would she eventuallyperhaps immediatelystop loving me? I found after falling in love with someone who, unaccountably, was also in love with me, that the fears and anxieties of at least two decades surfaced, and these played on my imagination and feelings with a terrifying intensity, suggesting to me, when I was able to think about it, that I had been resisting marriage, resisting intimacy and love, for years, despite my conscious and sincere protestations that I wanted to be married.
My thesis is that most people are putting up just this kind of resistance to their own happiness, to the possible transformation of their lives, and to their perception of the realities on which the gospel is based. And like me, most have somehow kept themselves from seeing that they are putting up this resistance. They honestly believe they would accept happiness and personal change and evidence for the existence and power of God if it were offered. And so they take the absence of these things from their lives as an indication that such things probably do not exist and that hope and faith directed toward them are futile and illusory.
Shortly before my marriage, still amazed that something so good and real and unbelievable was happening to me, I gave a talk on "how to have good things happen in your life." It might have been called "how to overcome your resistance to your own happiness." The first step, I claimed, is to see and believe in the possiblity of good things. Drawing on my difficulties in moving toward marriage, I noted that this first step of seeing and believing is often the most difficult. What I had learned was that for years, without realizing it, I had chosen to see things in such a way as to make marriage impossible. First of all, no mortal woman could possibly have convinced me she was the "right one." It wasn't that I had a list of required talents and character traits. I had given that up some years earlier. Rather, I simply found every woman I met unacceptable because imperfect; there was always one thing or another I felt was not ideal or that I feared I couldn't handle. Even more serious was my perception of myself: Bruce Young, lonely, awkward, socially inept, romantically unappetizing, fated (it seemed) to be forever rejected by women. I had no idea how much self-pity was interwoven into my perceptions. I didn't see that I was choosing to see myself as I did in order to avoid dealing with experiences that frightened me.
My perceptions underwent radical changes near the start of my courtship, but the changes are still ongoing. Somehow those pictures of myself have left traces that keep returning from time to time. But the first changes happened something like this: I let go, for a while, of my great burden of preconceptions, judgments, anticipations, and concerns, and becamein at least one respectas a little child. I willingly opened myself to what was there before me, specifically to a person named Margaret. I had known her for several months before and had interpreted what I saw and heard with what I thought was a desire to understand and see clearly. But it turned out that I had, in fact, by viewing her through my complicated and overactive mental apparatus, produced an illusion of understanding based on negligible evidence. That mental apparatus, that set of judgments, categorizings, and interpretations, had become a dense, tangled barrier between me and her, keeping me from experiencing her as she was. And, for reasons I now can guess, the judgments I made mostly tended in the direction of seeing her as "not my type": bright, yes, even brilliant; but also too high-strung, confusing, leapingly intuitive. I later found that, though some of these perceptions were accurate in part, by my resistance to her I was helping to create the very nervousness and confusion that bothered me. When I opened myself to her, I experienced something akin to revelation: this person, this woman, was someone I felt I recognized. I felt so close to her, once I dropped the barriers, that I found it hard to keep from feeling I had always known her. I recognized a deep kinship as if we already had in common a reservoir of shared experiences, perceptions, and values. In the great calmness that came with this recognition, I saw her as someone I could share myself with fully, someone I could love and understand and who could love and understand me.
This rather shocking experience of finding myself in love with someone I had deeply misunderstood led me to some general insights about faith and love. One is that we all create most of our own burdensworries, fears, anxieties, self-torment, self-pity, self-hatred. These, along with our preconceptions, our entrenched notions about how things are and how they must be, set up barriers between us and the world outside ourselves. These barriers keep us from seeing and experiencing the world as it is. They keep us from experiencing the greatest of realitiesother persons, including the mortals around us and others we do not (in the usual order of things) see with our physical eyes, but whose existence we can know of, whose personal presence we may in some instances know and feel, if we let our selves. On the day I was married I felt such a presence as distinctly as I ever have, and my nervousness temporarily dissolved as I became aware of the great love that was, and had been for some months, extended toward me by many, on both sides of the veil. I have become convinced that such love is constantly available to us, but that we usually do our best to keep it out. Besides the love of friends and relatives, living and dead, I have come to know in some measure the personal reality of our heavenly Father and of Jesus Christ, two beings whose love for us is unwavering. That love is always there for us to experience, and it can have a transforming effect on us if we will open ourselves to it and not allow our fears and preconceptions to shut it out.
We have been invited to take off our burdens, including those of fear and self-doubt, and come to one who can take them from us: "Come unto me," said Jesus, "all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light, and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:28). The scriptures describe this process of unburdening when they say, "Become as a little child," meek, submissive, open, ignorant, willing to receive and experience, freed from preconceptions and judgments, putting off the natural man in order to yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit (see Mosiah 3:18-19). For adults, of course, this state does not come automatically. "Yielding" is often a painful, long-term process requiring us to take responsibility for the confusion, fears, and resentment we feel, realizing they are largely of our own making, and give them upa hard thing for all of us who want to cling to everything we have created.
Somehow I managed to achieve this kind of unburdening, at least for a time, and opened my eyes in a way they had not been opened before. But the next step I facedtrusting in the goodness and reality of what I saw with those opened eyesagain proved exceptionally hard for me. I wanted certainty, but I had long found it difficult to trust my feelings about the truth or goodness of what I experienced. And so I had developed the habit of thinking things out in intricate, endless detail. I suffered from the illusion that a system of mental images, of notations on the scroll of my brain, carefully created and held consciously before my mental eyes, connected and organized and manipulated in every way I could imagine, was the best or perhaps the only way to attain certainty about a thing. I eventually saw that I was "thinking things out" mainly as a way of delaying the inevitable final step of choiceShould I give this paper an A or a B? Should I pick up the phone and make a call? Should I say to someone, "I love you"? I learned, and am still learning, that all of my choices must finally be based on the trust I am willing to put in my perceptions and feelings. Ideas, mental images, and logical connections all can serve a useful purpose. But the mind preoccupied with its own ideas and filled with preconceptions and ready-made decisions, with narrow notions about what is and what is not, will often be blind to realities that are obviously and immediately present. I am convincedand experience has repeatedly confirmed my convictionthat true certainty comes, not from mental system-spinning, but from learning to identify and trust those feelings and insights that are worthy of trust.
Indeed, I found "thinking things out" utterly inadequate in my progress toward marriage. Thinking helped clarify a few things; it helped retrieve a few past insights when I needed them. But for the most part I found "knowledge" to have a character quite different from what I was accustomed to. I found myself having to open myself to and experience the reality of another person. That meant recognizing the existence of things other than myself, not only this other person, but the relationsstrangely neither wholly inside nor outside of medeveloping between us. I found that I needed to trust in and remember the reality of what I was experiencing.
Even then, the analogy of this
experience to religious life seemed obvious to me. Like my
progress toward marriage, my progress in religious faith has
required me to remember and trust in the reality of experiences I
do not fully understand. Faith, like love, has had much more to
do with knowing persons than with understanding concepts. It
has meant learning to hear the voice and feel the personal
presence of God and to trust the reality of his voice. After
coming to know a mortal woman, I found myself seeing more clearly
what might be meant by knowing the voice of the Lord. In both
instances, an opening of the heart and mind is required. In
Alma's words, we must "awake and arouse [our] faculties" and let
the "desire to believe" work in us until we are willing to "give
place for a portion" of what the Lord would have us see or hear.
Then comes the experience of knowing:
But however helpful and even
necessary this recognition was, the next stepthat of
choosing the good things I had founddid
not turn out to be easy. There was still the haunting fear that
I might not be choosing the "right" thing. What if someone else,
even closer to the ideal than this woman I knew and loved,
existed somewhere? What if I was somehow wrong about this woman
I thought I knew? I recognized, first of all, the inevitable
imperfection in my knowledge, an imperfection characteristic of
all mortal knowledge, since we must act now, in the present
moment, if we are ever going to act and since we cannot see and
know more fully unless we act. I also recognized that I was
again trying to find some way of escaping from experiences too
good, too beautiful, it seemed, to be trueor at least to be
comfortable. And though I could see that what I wanted was good,
I feared that somehow I would make the wrong choice and so prove
unacceptable to God, who would leave me (I feared) forever existentially abandoned. I was like
the fearful servant who hid his
talent because he knew his Lord was a hard master. Perhaps I was
also like the Saints of Joseph Smith's time who wanted to be told
the exact route they should travel for fear of making a wrong
choice if they trusted their own judgment. Indeed, as I read the
familiar scripture where the Lord tells these Saints to do "as
they shall counsel between themselves and me," it came to me like
a revelation how similar my situation was to theirs. I too
needed to be "anxiously engaged in a good cause" and dare to do
things of my "own free will." The promises made to them applied
also to me:
And so I came to see my odyssey as simpler in its overall design than the complicated process I had been making it. It was a matter simply of seeing something good and choosing it: stepping forward in faith to make real what was not yet fully real for me. Because I had to step beyond what I could see with my physical eyes, beyond what already existed and was therefore familiar and comfortable, I was afraid. One reason for the fear was that this process of stepping forward did not leave me fully in control, self-sufficient, safely in charge. It did not feel so much like "making" a thing happen as "letting" it happen, my active role being mostly that of choice, of stepping forward. This processthis stepping forward in faithseemed to me at the time, and still does, a kind of miracle. Something came to be real which before was only desired, and yet I had no doubt of its reality as it came into being.
Now I have been married for over a year, and I find myself trying with some difficulty to explain truths I thought I understood before marriage. I was not aware then how deeply ingrained my strategies of resistance were. Before marriage I found it beyond my intellectual capacity to imagine myself happily, comfortably married. Sharing my life with another persona woman, a wifeseemed inconceivably fearful and beyond my ability to cope with. It has turned out to be far easier than I had imagined. I feel comfortable, fulfilled, and confident in my role as husband and father (when I married, I was blessed with a four-year-old as well as a wife). But marriage has also included moments of such agonizing straining of the heartstrings, such humiliation and exposure, that I'm not sure I would have wanted to choose marriage if I had known it would bring such moments. Yet I also see that, though I chose freely, I could not have chosen otherwise and still been true to myself. And again I recognize my responsibility for creating the experience I have had. Marriage has brought feelings of happiness and of belonging and completeness greater than any I have had before. But I have continued, for some reason, to resist my own happiness.
Indeed, besides resisting happiness, I have sometimes chosen to make myself and others miserable. Why I should choose to create the very thing I think I want to avoid is hard to understand. But whatever the reasons, I've struggled far more often, both in marriage and before, with fear-fulfillment than with wish-fulfillment. Bright fantasies, no matter how luminous, have never proved satisfying for long. But I have always seemed able to make my life miserable and then say to myself, "At least this is real." I suspect that everyone has felt the fear of failure, of abandonment, even of personal annihilation or unremitting misery. And for some reason it seems that we find it easier to create what we fear and be done with it than to wait in awful suspense until what we fear comes of its own volition.
An example from my marriage: Both my wife and I have been haunted by the fear that we would wake up one morning to discover that our spouse never really loved us after all. I have sometimes acted on this fear by interpreting my wife's moodsher frustration with herself, her physical discomfort, even sometimes her preoccupation with other mattersas disapproval of me. Weakened and disturbed by this "rejection," by the feeling that my inadequacy and unworthiness have been exposed, I have responded with self-pity (which my wife particularly dislikes) or with irritation and gloominess (which usually draw from her responses in kind). And so I create, through my perceived failure, additional evidence for such failure. Again and again I have overreacted to any sign of disapproval because something in me fears that the great depth and solidity of love my wife has offered me must be an illusion. How could anything so good have come into my life? Sometimes I even provoke conflict without any excuse at all, simply because I want confirmation for my fears.
I have some guesses as to why I and others sometimes choose misery in this way and especially why people have such difficulty in accepting love. First, we feel unworthy and inadequate. And this feeling is self-perpetuating, for it is impossible for us to become good or happy unless we believe we can. A second reason is that love hurts; happiness hurts. What I mean is that the experiences of love and joy are intense, soul-transforming, and therefore not comfortable. They require some letting go and giving up, and so most people are afraid of them. They expose us to highs and lows too strong, we are afraid, for us to bear. I am reminded of T. S. Eliot's words: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality."
A third reason is that there is something attractive about the idea of being totally self-sufficient and self-contained. It seems safer and easier. If our world is self-created and self-contained, nothing seems beyond our understanding or control. Hence, many of us relate, not to other people, but to our mental images of other people. This tendency also explains, I believe, why so many people have preferred theories about the world to the world itselfhave preferred, that is, to develop philosophical systems rather than to step out into the real world, vast and beautiful and terrifying as it is, with all that they do not understand about it, and grow step by step in their understanding. I believe this is also one reason many people have preferred to worship a conceptual Goda God in their mindsrather than the true and living God whose voice, though it pierces to the very center, comes from outside themselves.
A fourth reason for our resistance to love and happiness (and to God and his revelations) is that to open ourselves to these things requires effort and commitment on our part. If I accept love from another person, I know, from the moment I acknowledge the possibility of accepting the love, that I cannot willingly be loved without loving in return. I cannot receive without giving. And in anticipation, the commitment to love can seem uncomfortably binding. The daily effort of love can seem unbearably difficult. Likewise, to accept God's love and the revelation of his desires for us is to see the rightness of responding to his love and being obedient to his revelations. Even if we recognize the transforming effect of a right response, we may feel the commitment to God to be a burden, a restriction of our freedom, a cramping of our ego. In order to be free of this self-created burden, we must do something difficult: we must recognize that this vision of a demanding and immensely weighty future is indeed our own creation and then let go of it. Love never ceases to be demanding, but when freely accepted, it becomes a source of energy and hope, rather than a burdensome and paralyzing weight.
A final reason for our lack of faith, if it can be separated from the rest, is that we are afraid our hopes will be disappointed. We don't want to be fooled, and so we create a life or a way of viewing life that is "fool-proof"so limited, so empty of vision, that there is nothing to be disillusioned about. Sometimes we even choose to offend those who could be our friends, or we choose to demonstrate our incompetence or irresponsibility, or we choose to imagine a life of intractable pressures, conflicts, and miseries, because we would rather lose everything we can and choose the worst we can imagine than hope for anything and have our hopes disappointed.
What does all of this have to do with religious faith? If we define faith as the power to see things that are real and good and then to have those things become fully real in our lives, then our images of ourselvesoften of ourselves as inadequate, unloveable, and uglyare perhaps the greatest obstacle to our exercising faith. Our relations with mortals and our difficulties accepting love from them do not differ greatly, in their essential character, from our relations with those beyond the veil. We resist love from God, and from othersfriends and relativeswho have gone through death before us, for the same reasons we resist love from each other: we are afraid we won't be loved when we are known for what we are; we are unwilling to accept the effort and commitment that come with receiving love; we want to be self-contained and not have to deal with the living and not wholly understood realities we find outside ourselves; we are afraid of being disappointed; and we are afraid of the intensity of love, especially of perfect, divine love. We too often would prefer the illusion of a bleak and miserable "certainty" to difficult and uncertain progress toward real knowledge.
Another striking parallel between marriage and religious experience is the antagonism that too often mars both. In both instances, the antagonism usually springs from fears and dark fantasies which, as they lead to resentment and hostility, create the very evidence they claim to be based on. Having experienced such self-created conflict, I am struck by how closely critics of the Church resemble people upset with their marriage partners. There is, for both the critics and the dissatisfied spouses, the same combination of inexorable logic and essential blindness. Everything they see seems obvious to them, and indeed, even with the heavy role played by imagination, there is usually some evidence that can bear the interpretation they give. But anesthetized to their own faults, hypersensitive to the imperfections of others, they do not see the real and potential splendor in the one (or the many) with whom they are yoked. The dark things they see are too often the products of their own hearts. And the evidence of a spouse's willingness to love and give, like the abundant evidence of God's love and active presence in his Church, is easily ignored or forgotten.
All of us, I suppose, are susceptible to doubts and antagonism of this kind. By our fears and our insistent unbelief we set up barriers through which no knowledge can enter, and we blind ourselves at times to those fragments of knowledge we have received, even when we knew, with all our faculties of heart and mind, that what we were experiencing was real when we received it.
But if we are willing to receive and remember it, there is always an abundance of evidence to sustain our faith, not only in a husband or wife, but in the reality and love of God. The precise sort of evidence will differ from one person to another, but the examples I give here are perhaps representative. First, there are the many reliable witnesses, men and women, who have seen, known, and spoken with God and his messengers or who have otherwise witnessed the effects of God's love and power in exceptional ways. Besides the widely known experiences, there are countless less well-known instances, recorded in journals, letters, and elsewhere, of the intervention of immortals in our lives. Many of the accounts I know of are far too precise and straightforward to suffer any real danger of being dismantled by the skeptical intellect. If we have faithif we have open and willing minds and heartswe can respond to the truth of such testimonies as these.
Another kind of evidence is that brought by our own experiences: our encounter, for instance, with the power to heal or to be healed or with the power to foresee or to understand beyond our natural understanding. What we call "promptings" can come to have a reliability akin to that of our five senses. Experience can give us the assurance that the influence we feel comes from outside ourselves and is a trustworthy guide. Witness David O. McKay's telling his brethren standing on a ledge inside a volcano, "I feel impressed we should leave this place immediately," moments before the ledge crumbled and fell. My own experience, though it has brought nothing as yet so spectacular, has included times of similar guidance. One that I find particularly impressive, but in ways that are hard for me to convey to anyone else, is the insistent prompting I felt one Sunday morning to accept my future wife's hesitant invitation to a reception at her parents' home, when I knew I would have only ten minutes of a crowded schedule to spare for it. That prompting (which helped lead to a then unimagined courtship) reminded me of nothing so much, even at the time, as the handcart pioneers' bone-deep feeling that they must gather to Utah.
I could describe other incidents, from my own experience and that of others, that might seem more impressive, more compelling as evidence, when viewed from the outside. But once the openness to such evidence is there, some of the quietest experiences can be the most reassuring. I have mentioned here only a handful among the possible sources of assurance. I repeat that what is lacking is not evidence. What is lacking is faith.
Most people are at once attracted to and suspicious of happy endings. I certainly wanted and hoped for a happy marriage. But it seemed to me only an imaginary ideal. It did not fit into my mental category of "the real." I could see no way to connect it with my present experience. I feel much the same way about the celestial world. It sounds beautiful, like some country of the imagination, yet solidly and tangibly real as described by witnesses worthy (I believe) of trust. But its very beauty makes it difficult for me to think of it as really existing. I expect to be somewhat shocked when I enter that worldif the desires of my heart are fulfilled and I am found worthy to do soshocked, at least mildly, to find it to be real after all: tangible, visible, surrounding me, I part of it. That is something like what I feel when I arrive in a foreign country, leave the plane, and find that this strange, unimaginable place is at last real and before me. That is also how I felt about marriage. Something I had dreamed about and wanted came with a strange suddenness into being. And it both fulfilled and upset my expectations. It was so much more real and satisfying than I had been able to imagine (that is always one of the deficiencies of the imagination). But the toughness of its reality also made it harder and more challenging, not than I had feared, but (with my innate love of ease) than I thought I might have liked. Yet here I am, living it, enjoying it, even now.
But perhaps I have made faith sound too easy. I have failed to mention that one reason we find it hard to believe in good things either on a personal or on a cosmic scale is that sometimes the good things we want don't happen. Our hopes are not always fulfilled. That, we have been told, is the nature of our existence here. And though good things can happen to us, though peace and joy are assured us according to our faith, the good things must often come through a process of struggle and disappointment and patient waiting. Some things some of us desire will not come at all in this life. But we have been assured by someone who knew the Lord well that "all our losses will be made up in the resurrection from the dead." Faith must finally be faith like that of Abraham or of Job, who affirmed, "Though he should slay me, yet will I trust in him."
I'm not sure that this aspect of our experience is really susceptible to being "figured out." The idea that life's trials and deprivations are purposeful seems reasonable to me and has proved true in my own experience. Yet I know too little of life's trials to speak with real authority about them. What I know is that God and his Son, whose suffering was beyond all human measure, have assured us that our trials have purpose and can have a positive outcome if we remain faithful through them. I have experienced the reality of that divine voice, and despite the limits of my understanding, the wisest choice in every way I can make is to put my trust in the assurance that voice gives.
Fortunately, marriage has given me new insight into both the difficult and the glorious aspects of life in the Church and of my personal growth in spiritual things. I see how much responsibility I bear for the quality of my spiritual life. I see that my tendencies to criticize and complain are essentially an expression of my own doubts and fears. Shakespeare and Hawthorne portrayed husbands who could see nothing good about the most loving and virtuous of wives, and so it should not be surprising that the Church of God, glorious to those who see the Spirit at work in it, should have its share of critics. Those in and out of the Church tormented with doubt and feelings of inadequacy remind me now of myself as a sometimes doubting marriage partner, finding it hard to believe I am loved as I am, hungry for assurance, but unsatisfied with any assurance I could be given. Marriage daily reminds me that faith is the power to see, to choose, to act, and to enjoy, and that it requires an abandonment of narrow certainties, preconceptions, defenses, and fears. I am also reminded of the need for worka necessary partner of faith in marriage as well as in our spiritual lives, for in both, it is "the willing and obedient" who will "eat the good of the land of Zion" (Doctrine and Covenants 64:34). I continue to see, as I experience married life, how easy it isthrough laziness or fearto resist whatever my own mind does not make, whatever is offered from the outside, to resist happiness, to reject the feast of joy laid before me by insisting that my dark fantasies are real or by failing to act, as I must, to help turn my brighter beliefs into realities. I have seen, in my own life and that of others, how substantial that feast of joy can be when it is willingly accepted.
Faith has thus come to take the key role I might have expected it should. Without itwithout this willingness to accept and power to give and createlove is not possible, happiness is not possible, none of the things I have wanted can become truly real for me. With it, nothing is impossible. There can enter into my life, through the process of time, even things my eyes have not seen nor my heart conceived, things I have hardly dared to imagine.
For further reflections, written in 2013 (about 27 years after the original essay), see http://english.byu.edu/faculty/youngb/faith2013.htm.