Reason of Hope vs. Proof
Peter counseled the early saints to “be ready always to give to every man that asketh you a reason of the that is in you in meekness …” (1 Peter 3:15)
In applying this counsel, I have found that there is a difference between a request for a reason of the hope that is in me, and a demand for proof that what I say is true.
On the surface, the two requests — a request for a reason of hope and a demand for proof — may appear similar, but at their foundations they are polar opposites.
Someone who requests a reason for spiritual things wants to listen to what you have to say. They see that you may have hope and understanding that they do not know how to obtain and that you may be able to explain how to receive it. They are humble and teachable.
Someone who demands proof for spiritual things does not listen; they are not interested in what you believe. They would rather that you believe as they do; it’s a bother that you hold to a position that counters theirs. They believe that their perception, experience, problem-solving skills and knowledge are superior to yours. They feel that discrediting your beliefs validates their own.
Ironically for those that require proof, if an argument that they give against your position is proven false, they simply shrug it off and move to the next argument, and they typically have plenty of those. They consider themselves the proverbial rubber and you the glue; your reasons bounce off them while theirs should stick to you.
That’s because they often don’t even accept the basic premises for the arguments against your position. Their intention is to expose a logical inconsistency within yours, thereby invalidating it. They have nothing to lose if their tactics don’t come to fruition as they attempt to use your position against itself, believing that it is flawed from its foundation, regardless of the counterarguments that you may produce. They may actually hope that you will accept arguments that they don’t even accept.
Empirical — independently reproducible and observable — proof is useful and important when the judges are your fellow human beings.
For example, empirical proof is necessary in the American court system. This application is designed skeptically, and rightfully so. Juries are selected to consist of multiple members, as unbiased as possible. The proceedings are headed by a (hopefully) impartial, law-bound judge. Unanimity from the jury is required for a valid, condemning verdict.
Another necessary use for empirical proof is in science. Scientific inquiry, is also, by necessity, skeptical. If a scientist hopes to prove or disprove a hypothesis to the scientific community, they must produce a preponderance of evidence that can collectively take a solid beating, and they can count on that happening before their findings are widely accepted.
Applying proof correctly
Evidence is not universally applicable as proof. Expertise in calculus is useful for revealing evidence in physics, but is usually irrelevant in proving matters related to law. Similarly, expertise in law is very useful in relation to matters of courtroom proof, but not very useful in proving matters of astronomy.
Not only is empirical proof limited in scope, but it is also limited to the current, imperfect understanding of man:
That brings us to spiritual proof.
Spiritual proof is for spiritual truth. Empirical proof does not reign supreme in situations in which God is the judge. Empirical evidence may corroborate a spiritual position, but its role is incidental or subsidiary, not pivotal.
What is a position in which God is the judge?
It is any situation in which He expects us to act according to the light and knowledge that He has given us. Everyone born into this world is given a measure of discernment between good and evil (See Moroni 7:18-19, John 1:9, Genesis 3:22). In such situations, we must choose to value the judgement of God more than the judgement of man (See Doctrine and Covenants 60:2, Matthew 6:2-5).
What, then, replaces empirical proof? Blind faith?
As a wise friend recently pointed out, the term “blind faith” is an oxymoron. The world considers faith to be blind, because it does not know what true faith is. True faith is to “hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” (Alma 32:21) By definition, true faith must be centered in truth.
But how can we know what is true unless we require empirical proof?
Our Savior taught this mystery to Peter, the other disciples, and, by extension, to us:
13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Cæsarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, ; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
15 He saith unto them, But whom say that I am?
16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the , the of the .
17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon : for flesh and blood hath not it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
To paraphrase, the world with its wisdom was confused about Jesus’ identity, but his disciples knew who He was, because God revealed it to them.
Personal revelation from God is the basis of true faith, which is “the substance [not lack of substance] of things hoped for, the evidence [not absence of evidence] of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Spiritual proof is inherently different from worldly proof. It consists of a witness received directly from God by revelation, not a compelling presentation of empirical evidence.
Spiritual proof is inextricably intertwined with faith. It follows the exercise of faith rather than simply materializing because of a compelling presentation of facts:
6 And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that is things which are for and seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no until after the of your faith.
But how do we know in what to exercise our faith, if we have not yet received a witness?
Refuters of spiritual truths love to present this concern in various forms of reductio ad absurdum, i.e., “What’s to keep you from murdering someone to know if it’s right?”
That kind of ridiculous argument can result from relying upon the logic of man sans the Light of Christ. We can’t be deceived into heading into a drug den hoping to meet new friends that will be a positive influence unless we desire it, thereby willfully stiffening our necks and blinding our minds (See 1 Nephi 17:30).
Yet, I have heard similar concern even from people of faith about approaching spiritual experiments blindly. They state things such as “If I don’t know if a principle is good already, then how will I not be deceived by trying to live it?”
A spiritual “experiment” — learning of a spiritual principle, then living it in order to obtain a personal testimony of it — starts with a reasonable expectation of a positive outcome based upon what you already know. It’s that simple and that safe.
The prophet, Alma, describes the process (in Alma 32. I recommend the entire chapter as instructive in this matter; I share only a small segment here):
26 Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than 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.
28 Now, we will compare the word unto a . Now, if ye give place, that a may be planted in your , behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your , that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, 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, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.
31 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own .
32 Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.
33 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
34 And now, behold, is your ? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your doth begin to expand.
35 O then, is not this real [spiritual proof]? I say unto you, Yea, because it is ; and whatsoever is light, is , because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good …
When you engage in a spiritual experiment, you see the hope in someone and ask for a reason. You read or hear what might be true, what you suspect is true, examine how you feel while learning of it and applying its principles and measure it against what you already know. Trying the experiment in this manner for a spiritual principle opens you up to receive the spiritual proof that you seek: a revelation from God regarding its truthfulness.
Until you receive your personal witness, you retain a natural, healthy bit of spiritual skepticism. However, to keep the skepticism in its proper place, we must
- Be devoid of pride and rebellion against God
- Possess a love of and thirst for truth.
- Be willing to live according to the truth and knowledge received.
If we don’t meet those conditions, the spiritual experiment is doomed from its outset. Alma refers to this process as casting out the seed by our unbelief (Alma 32:28). Proof demanders may claim that this mindset taints the experiment, creating a situation for a self-fulfilling prophecy. In reality, these conditions are needed for complete objectivity and to create an atmosphere in which personal revelation may be received.
If we do meet those conditions and remain thus open to God’s inspiration, we will receive either the witness that we seek or the wisdom and strength to keep our concerns within the proper perspective until the witness becomes appropriate for God to grant us according to his omniscience, love, wisdom, and perfect timing.
Reliance upon spiritual evidence (the witness of the Holy Spirit) strengthens faith:
1 “… blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me [our Savior] and know that I am.
2 And again, more blessed are they who shall in your words because that ye shall testify that ye have seen me, and that ye know that I am. Yea, blessed are they who shall in your , and down into the depths of humility and be baptized …
(3 Nephi 12:1-2)
24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and itinto my side: and be not , but .
Spiritual proof is often private. Regardless of the involvement of others, only God, “which seeth in secret” (Matthew 6:4) know the desires of our hearts, the content of our prayers, the ways in which we exercise our faith, and how closely we act in accordance to what we know to be true. As God is the judge, public proof is unnecessary.
Our Savior demonstrated and taught of this privacy on multiple occasions, only some of which I recount below:
12 ¶ And it came to pass, when he was in a certain city, behold a man full of : who seeing Jesus fell on his face, and besought him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
13 And he put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean. And immediately the leprosy departed from him.
14 And he charged him to tell no man …
35 … there came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house certain which said, Thy daughter is dead …
36 As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue, Be not afraid, only .
37 And he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James.
39 And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this , and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth.
40 And they . But when he had put them all out, he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him, and entereth in where the damsel was lying.
41 And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, .
42 And straightway the damsel , and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment.
43 And he that no man should know it …
2 And … Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was before them.
3 And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.
4 And there appeared unto them Elias with : and they were talking with Jesus.
7 And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a came out of the cloud, saying, This is my : hear him.
9 And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them that they should tell no what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead.
Hence the commandment to “judge not that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1-2) We simply don’t know to what degree someone is accountable to God, and should leave the judgement to Him.
Spiritual proof must be sought. While empirical proof is external — presented by others in a convincing, compelling way, true spiritual proof is internal — between the individual and God, and must be sought diligently. It is not imposed nor coercive in any way, consistent with God’s constant support of the agency that He has given us.
Exaltation and condemnation are elective processes. God does not hold us accountable for spiritual knowledge that we have not received, including spiritual witnesses received by someone else, though He often gives an individual a personal witness regarding what someone else may share.
This is consistent with God’s mercy toward us, because once we know a spiritual truth, we are required to live according to it:
3 Therefore, thy heart to receive and the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have [a] law revealed unto them must obey the same.
(Doctrine and Covenants 132:3)
3 For of him unto whom is much is ; and he who against the greater shall the greater .
4 Ye call upon my name for , and I give them unto you; and inasmuch as ye keep not my sayings, which I give unto you, ye become transgressors; and and judgment are the penalty which is affixed unto my law.
(Doctrine and Covenants 82:3. See also Luke 12:48)
17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.
18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to , for he knoweth it.
19 And now, how much is he that the of God and doeth it not, than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into ?
Yet, lest we be tempted to avoid spiritual truth to avoid condemnation, we must also remember that “it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:6)
Empirical proof is great, but it has its place, and that place is not in the same arena with spiritual truth. If we rely upon Cæsar’s proof for the things which are Cæsar’s, and upon God’s proof for the things which are God’s (See Luke 20:25), we can learn tremendous truth and reach the eternal destiny that God has given us.
14 But the not the things of the of God: for they are unto him: neither can he them, because they are .
10 But God hath them unto us by his : for the all things, yea, the deep things of God.
11 For what man the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God no man, the of God.
12 Now we have received, not the of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost ; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
9 But as it is written, hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath for them that love him.
(1 Corinthians 2:9-14)
I thank God that as far as worldly judges are concerned, I have nothing to prove. I know the spiritual proof I have received of God, I know that God knows it, and I cannot deny it (See Joseph Smith–History:1:12,25).
I share this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.