This essay has had an interesting afterlife. I have regularly given copies to my students, numbering now, after 30 years of teaching, in the thousands. My wife has had students in many of her classes read the essay. For a time, the English Department at BYU gave copies to graduate students who were marrying. And for a time, the essay was part of a collection used in BYU’s Honors writing classes. Those who have read the essay have sometimes passed on copies to others. I’ve even gotten e-mail requests for copies from strangers.
Given its wide distribution, I’ve wondered about its effect on readers. The essay has a double focus: religious faith and the miracle of love, including the way it can bring two people together in marriage. Some readers have found the essay helpful in overcoming their resistance to a relationship of closeness and commitment. Some who have felt quite ready for such a relationship have shared the essay with a friend or a “significant other” who was hesitant. Occasionally my wife and I have attended a wedding reception where the bride or groom has said, “Thank you so much for that essay!”
Hearing such words, I’ve always felt a little nervous, hoping that any marriages that have been encouraged by the essay have been good ones, have thrived and lasted. I’ve been consoled, though, when I’ve remembered that the essay acknowledges the difficulties that come with marriage and with life in general—“the antagonism” that “springs from fears and dark fantasies” and that can lead to resentment, hostility, and blindness; the tendency so many of us have to resist intimacy and love; the fact that “good things must often come through a process of struggle and disappointment and patient waiting” and that “Some things some of us desire will not come at all in this life.”
The essay also deals with the broader question of self-doubt—the worries so many have about their capacity for happiness and for love. To that aspect of the essay, a common response I’ve gotten from students and other readers is this: “How did you know what I was thinking and feeling? How have you managed to describe feelings that I thought were intensely and uniquely mine?” My answer has been that apparently we all share similar fears and doubts. If I’ve described them accurately, that’s because I chose to be as honest and open as I could about what I myself had experienced. I felt compelled to make that choice once I took on the task of writing about realities as powerful and sacred as faith and love.
A few readers have not felt this kinship with the feelings I’ve described. I remember one smart, ambitious young man who said, “Everybody else seems to be able to relate to what you’ve written. I don’t.” Several years later I saw him again, and he told me he had changed his mind about the essay. He now felt it spoke to his own inner experience because he had now encountered and lived through the kind of challenges the essay describes.
Besides marriage and the problem of self-doubt, the essay deals with other challenges that life brings to thoughtful human beings, including the question of whether there is any essential or eternal meaning or purpose to it all and, specifically for Latter-day Saints, whether the things our beliefs point to are in fact real. Is there a wise and loving God who concerns himself with us? Is there a plan of happiness that offers access to fulfillment in this life and to an eternity of joy and progress? Are the instruments by which God brings about his purposes—his divine Son, his Church, the ordinances and covenants of his gospel—truly and reliably his? Is divine power available to assist us in dealing with suffering, loss, and discouragement and in overcoming what seem the most appalling and massive of obstacles to happiness and love: namely, death—our own and that of loved ones—and evil in the world and in ourselves?
The point of the essay is that the evidence in favor of all of the positive realities is abundant, but that we must open our eyes and hearts to the evidence and be willing to trust in it. I find myself attracted to the idea, proposed by Terryl Givens and others, that the evidence for and against the restored gospel is about evenly divided, precisely so that we will be able to exercise faith freely and not be compelled to believe. Intellectually, this idea makes a lot of sense. At the same time, I find myself persuaded daily, once I open my eyes to it, that I am always surrounded by evidence of the reality of joy, love, goodness, and beauty. Whatever difficulties my mind has in making sense of the complexities of the world around me, I am struck by the immense and absolute reality of my own existence and that of others, by the sense that there is profound meaning to our struggles and yearnings and hopes, and by the likelihood, at once astonishing and reassuring, that there is something enduringly meaningful in our lives and in the universe in which we are living them.
This essay was first published a year after I was married. Since then my experience of life has included years of reflection, study, Church service, and professional work, with its accomplishments and disappointments. It has also included the blessings and challenges, some of them heart-wrenching, that have come with marriage and family life. I have learned from marriage and parenthood that I am not always as nice a person as I had supposed—in fact, that in many ways, I am deeply flawed. I have learned through experiences that have embedded it in the core of my being what I had already believed in theory: that love is far more than pleasant or excited feelings, that it demands active and determined commitment and caring, even when I don’t feel like it. I have learned that humility and repentance are essential. More than just words or themes for talks, these have become the daily necessities of facing myself and my behavior, feeling the pain of my failures, including the harm I have inflicted on others, and seeking to undergo deep change.
Such experiences have modified and deepened my understanding of the issues taken up in the essay. Yet in general I still happily affirm the essay’s main argument and in fact affirm it with greater confidence, based on years of living and testing it. Faith—trust in and openness to the possibility of good things—is required for happiness and fulfillment; it provides the grounds for loving relationships; it “is the power to see, to choose, to act, and to enjoy, and . . . requires an abandonment of narrow certainties, preconceptions, defenses, and fears.” As we step forward prior to full understanding, faith enables us “to see things that are real and good and then to have those things become fully real in our lives.”
In fact, in the years since the essay was published, at some moments when I have struggled with difficult issues or circumstances, I have reread my own words almost as if they were written by someone else and have found them helpful and comforting. Despite flaws in the writing—some wordiness, perhaps too abstract, complicated, and inwardly focused an approach—I have found that the essay succeeds in opening my eyes and heart both to a hope in future possibilities and to an awareness of present realities, to the goodness and beauty and preciousness of the world and people and spiritual realities that surround me.
I confess that in the years that have passed since the essay was published I have not always felt as affirmative as I sound in the essay. My moral and spiritual state and often simply my moods—feelings of worry or exhaustion or antagonism—have had a profound impact on the degree to which I’ve been able to enjoy the Spirit and experience spiritual things as real.
Yet through the difficult stretches when I’ve felt spiritually out of tune, I’ve taken comfort in C. S. Lewis’s idea (expressed in The Screwtape Letters) that it is in our times of spiritual dryness that we most truly choose, that when we look “around upon a universe from which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished,” and ask why we have been forsaken but still obey, we are then especially “growing into the sort of creature He wants [us] to be.”
I am, at least when I am most honest and humble, more open to possibilities than I was when I first wrote this essay—more open to different ways of seeing and understanding and explaining and to the limitations of my present understanding—and at the same time more deeply, firmly convinced of certain basic things. Both intellectual study and spiritual witnesses have assured me of the inspiration and authenticity of the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon. I am confident of the truth of the doctrines of the restored gospel about who we are and what we can become. I am grateful to witness the exciting unfolding of God’s work for the blessing of his children. I believe that the entire human family are brothers and sisters of divine parentage and that our calling as members of the Church is to love and bless all of God’s children.
I am aware of the human limitations and imperfections of Church members and leaders, all the more from having served in positions of leadership myself. Yet I am certain of the sincerity and goodness and am grateful for the love and willingness to sacrifice and serve demonstrated by many members and leaders of the Church. I have witnessed instances of undeniable inspiration and spiritual power. I am confident that the Church is being led by divine inspiration, that we are as a people making progress toward what God expects us to become, and that enormous good is being done to bless God’s children around the world. I’ve seen the Church at work as I’ve taken part in memorable sacrament meetings in London, Paris, Beijing, and Patzicia in highland Guatemala; as I’ve traveled with my family through the Baltic states when my father-in-law was serving as mission president; as we’ve spent a year in the LDS community of Laie, Hawaii; and as we’ve communicated with missionaries serving around the world—all of this in addition to powerful general and regional Church meetings, meetings in my home ward and stake, and other gatherings and events, powerful not only in what I’ve felt but in the ways my mind and heart have been stretched. My own ward, which I know intimately, is the setting for Spirit-filled meetings, daily acts of compassion and service, and abundance goodness in members’ actions and relationships.
At the same time I have many questions. There is much I do not understand, and there are things that are hard to make sense of or deal with, including both intellectual and practical issues. I try to deal with such questions and problems with patience, faith, and humility. My efforts have consistently been blessed with new—deeper and more expansive—understandings so that what sometimes seemed most troubling has provided a path to some of the most precious things I’ve learned. I am grateful for the challenges to my capacities and understanding since they help me see how far I have to go and give me opportunities for continued inquiry and growth. I am most frequently aware of my own need to grow in goodness and caring for others. I recognize my need for divine assistance if I am to move forward in the long road of progress still ahead of me.
If I were to change one thing in the essay published almost thirty years ago, it would be to put greater emphasis on charity, on “the pure love of Christ.” Faith—reaching out and moving forward with trust—is essential; hope is essential, a vibrant hope that the promised blessings will come. But as the scriptures tell us, the greatest of these is charity. Learning to love in the pure, Christ-like way suggested by this word transforms us individually and binds us together with our fellow human beings and with our Father and his Son. My efforts to love and serve others—family and friends, the wonderful and struggling people I’ve worked with in the Church, and the similarly wonderful and struggling people I’ve encountered in other ways—have confirmed the truth of an idea expressed in The Brothers Karamazov. In this great novel by Dostoevsky, people come to the Elder Zosima filled with needs and worries. Zosima tells one of these, a woman struggling to believe, that she can overcome her doubts and come to the faith she desires “by the experience of active love,” not just by dreaming about love but by trying to love those around her “actively and tirelessly.” The active effort to love can have just this effect, in part because it changes our outlook and our desires.
I believe in Jesus Christ as the perfect embodiment of charity, as of every other virtue. At age twelve, bearing my testimony for the first time in a public meeting, I said that I knew Jesus is the Son of God. I still remember the clarity and power of that conviction. Though spiritual fog has obscured my vision in varying degrees over the years, that conviction has remained with me, and I believe my acquaintance with the Savior has deepened. Though I still have much to learn, I am convinced that this divine person who is the foundation of my faith is absolutely real, that he did and taught the things recorded in the scriptures, and that I will some day meet him face to face.
When my essay was first published I had just embarked on the experience of marriage and anticipated bringing children into the world, pursuing a professional career, and enjoying the other adventures life would bring. I’ve now experienced much of what I anticipated, along with many surprises and challenges that have stretched me and sometimes brought anguish as well as growth and joy. My life and the lives of those I love have included problems and losses that could leave us bound in chains of regret and hopelessness. But I have faith—an assurance in which I have full and enduring confidence—that all damage, every mistake, every hurt, every evil can be completely healed and overcome through God’s power and love, expressed and made available through the atonement of Christ. As long as we are willing to see and act with faith, there is always hope, hope of the most glorious of possible futures. No blessing we could possibly imagine will be withheld as long as we are willing to move forward with faith.
Now, along with anticipating further adventures in this world (and I am very actively involved in many of the concerns of this world), I look forward to the eternal fulfillment of those things in which I have put my faith. I look forward to coming to know my Heavenly Father and my Savior more fully and directly and to enjoying an eternity of sweet association with family and friends. I hope to share, with those I know and love and with a multitude of others I will yet come to know, the feast of joy that faith makes possible.