Unbelief is a condition where an individual rejects or refuses to seek out a particular truth because it clashes with a tradition they hold. This is not the same as willful rebellion, which is disobeying what you know is true.
There are many doctrines taught in absolute plainness in the scriptures. Yet, many don't know about them, and most of those who are informed of them disbelieve.
And now I, Nephi, cannot say more; the Spirit stoppeth mine utterance, and I am left to mourn because of the unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be. (2 Nephi 32:7)Knowledge is necessary for salvation. A man must come to a certain discrete level of knowledge before he can be saved. The reason men do not search for knowledge, or believe it when it is offered to them, is because of their unbelief.
The opposite of unbelief.It is quite simple (though not easy) to be faithful. We are told to "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Like Paul, Alma understood the process of being faithful--it does not require some superhuman ability. Instead, you just have to believe something could be true.
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 desire 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. (Alma 32:27)
If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. (John 7:17)A reflection upon the attitude of the Lamanites at one point in the Book of Mormon provides a concise description of the opposite of unbelief:
And thus we see that the Lord began to pour out his Spirit upon the Lamanites, because of their easiness and willingness to believe in his words. (Helaman 6:36)An easiness and willingness to believe the Lord is the opposite of unbelief. You don't have to know all things or have perfect faith. You just need to recognize that you don't know everything (or much at all) and be willing to believe the Lord, no matter what he tells you.
The brother of Jared is the archetype of the opposite of unbelief. Consider his much-read but poorly-utilized story:
4 And I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea.
5 Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men.
6 And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger. And the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord; and it was as the finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood; and the brother of Jared fell down before the Lord, for he was struck with fear.
7 And the Lord saw that the brother of Jared had fallen to the earth; and the Lord said unto him: Arise, why hast thou fallen?
8 And he saith unto the Lord: I saw the finger of the Lord, and I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood. 9 And the Lord said unto him: Because of thy faith thou hast seen that I shall take upon me flesh and blood; and never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast; for were it not so ye could not have seen my finger. Sawest thou more than this?
10 And he answered: Nay; Lord, show thyself unto me.
11 And the Lord said unto him: Believest thou the words which I shall speak? 12 And he answered: Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie. 13 And when he had said these words, behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you.
14 Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters. (Ether 3)
Notice how the key to what the brother of Jared received was his willingness to believe what God would (future tense) speak? Yes, the brother of Jared believed the things he had been told before. However, the key was his willingness to believe what God had not yet told him. What is the difference between what God has told us and what he will tell us? If we are reconciled to God (not the case in willfull rebellion) we already believe what he has told us. We do not believe what he has not yet told us. If we did, we would already be doing it, and we would not need him to tell us about it. When we make the baptismal covenant, we promise God that we will obey both the commandments we know and the commandments we do not yet know. Few enough people keep that covenant that it is the gateway to redemption from the fall.
Once you sincerely transition to trusting God, there is nothing that can derail you from salvation. Redemption from the fall requires believing God. Believing God means to be willing to accept anything from God as true, without reservation. (See Ether 3:11-13).
The brother of Jared's decision to believe whatever God would reveal to him is magnificently simple. He was merely willing to believe things that contradicted his preconceived notions. That is all it takes.
A great example of this is given in the story of Nephi praying on the tower. When he stops praying, he notices that a large group had gathered. The account suggests that most (if not all) of these people were wicked. Nephi calls them to repentance, then gives them a prophetic sign as evidence of the validity of his message. He says that their governor had been murdered.
1 Behold, now it came to pass that when Nephi had spoken these words, certain men who were among them ran to the judgment-seat; yea, even there were five who went, and they said among themselves, as they went:These men were the same that Helaman had just called to repentance. They were not reconciled to God. They did not recognize Nephi as a true messenger. And yet, at least five of them suspended their disbelief enough to experiment upon his word. They did not believe him, but they thought they would test his word just in case. Those five recognized that they were wrong, and they repented.
2 Behold, now we will know of a surety whether this man be a prophet and God hath commanded him to prophesy such marvelous things unto us. Behold, we do not believe that he hath; yea, we do not believe that he is a prophet; nevertheless, if this thing which he has said concerning the chief judge be true, that he be dead, then will we believe that the other words which he has spoken are true.
3 And it came to pass that they ran in their might, and came in unto the judgment-seat; and behold, the chief judge had fallen to the earth, and did lie in his blood.
4 And now behold, when they saw this they were astonished exceedingly, insomuch that they fell to the earth; for they had not believed the words which Nephi had spoken concerning the chief judge.
5 But now, when they saw they believed, and fear came upon them lest all the judgments which Nephi had spoken should come upon the people; therefore they did quake, and had fallen to the earth. (Helaman 9)
Unbelief occurs when we prefer our traditions over new truth.
Traditions fuel unbelief.
For behold, had the mighty works been shown unto them which have been shown unto you, yea, unto them who have dwindled in unbelief because of the traditions of their fathers, ye can see of yourselves that they never would again have dwindled in unbelief.(Helaman 15:15)But how do we recognize traditions? No one intentionally accepts false tradition. If teachings came with a label defining them as tradition or truth, it would be much easier to navigate mortality. Sometimes new truth replaces false traditions, and sometimes it replaces lesser truth. In both cases, the individual must decide between what they had previously accepted as true, and what God wants them to have now.
Whenever new truth comes from God, the recipient must decide whether they will consider the possibility that the new teaching is correct. Most people will reject it. It is human nature to be closed-minded.
Jesus' ministry provides a typical example of the process. At one point in the gospels, Jesus "marvelled because of their unbelief" (Mark 6:6) What was the dialogue that preceded his marveling?
And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him. And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. (Mark 6:1-5)
The crowds were offended at what Jesus was teaching. It seemed wrong to them because it contradicted what they held to be true. Instead of considering the possibility that what they were hearing was true--a process that would unlock their minds to rationally consider the abundant evidence--they dismissed Jesus out of hand. They lightly treated the things they received (see D&C 84:54-56). Condemnation was and is the result of unbelief, because you can't progress to the point you could had you received the new truth.
How do you know if you are an unbeliever?Is there anything off limits? Is there anything that would be impossible for God to ask you to do? Is there anything that, if God commanded you to do it, you would reject out of hand? If so, you are in unbelief.
We cannot put anything off limits to God. He can command anything he wishes of us, and we must be prepared to be true and faithful to everything he teaches us, no matter how offensive it may be to our carnal minds.
Here are three quotes from Joseph Smith on the topic of limiting what we will accept from God (setting up stakes):
- "To all those who are disposed to say to set up stakes for the almighty— will come short of the glory of god. To become a joint heir of the heirship of the son he must put away all his traditions. Men will set up stakes and say thus far will we go and no farther, did Abraham when called upon to offer his son, did the Saviour, no..."
- "The mystery power and glory of the preisthood is so great and glorious that the angels desired to understand it and cannot: why, because of the tradition of them and their fathers in setting up stakes and not coming up to the mark in their probationary state."
- "I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to though all of them have some thruth. but I want to come up into the presence of God & learn all things but the creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further.—which I cannot subscribe to."
Sometimes it is hard to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes, we like to think that we would do anything God would command us to do.
One way to detect unbelief even when we are good at deceiving ourselves is to look at our works, or rather God's work in and through us.
Have you been baptized by fire? Do you do works of righteousness? Do you see the miracles of the scriptures in your own life in undiluted form?
If not, there are only two possible reasons: Willful rebellion and unbelief. If the former, you will recognize things in your life that contradict what God has revealed to you. If the latter, you might not notice the problem except by the lack of God's power in your life. (Note: it is not unusual to be in both at the same time).
- "And I would exhort you, my beloved brethren, that ye remember that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that all these gifts of which I have spoken, which are spiritual, never will be done away, even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the children of men." (Moroni 10:19)
- "And there were no gifts from the Lord, and the Holy Ghost did not come upon any, because of their wickedness and unbelief." (Mormon 1:14)
- "And the reason why he ceaseth to do miracles among the children of men is because that they dwindle in unbelief, and depart from the right way, and know not the God in whom they should trust." (Mormon 9:20)
- "Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain." (Moroni 7:37)
Unbelief is far more prevalent than we'd like to think. How many people have experienced what the brother of Jared did? Yet, we are told plainly that if we have not, it is because of unbelief!
And in that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are.....Behold, when ye shall rend that veil of unbelief which doth cause you to remain in your awful state of wickedness, and hardness of heart, and blindness of mind, then shall the great and marvelous things which have been hid up from the foundation of the world from you—yea, when ye shall call upon the Father in my name, with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then shall ye know that the Father hath remembered the covenant which he made unto your fathers, O house of Israel. (Ether 4:7,15)
How do you repent of unbelief?Jesus taught that "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." (Mark 9:23). If you find yourself setting up stakes for God, setting aside certain things as not possible, then you are in unbelief. The solution to this problem is to cry out to God, who will help your unbelief (see Mark 9:24).
Fundamentally, unbelief is a manifestation of distrust in God. If you trusted God absolutely, you would not have reason to doubt anything that comes from him, or to consider certain things as off limits to him.
6 Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.
7 O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth. (Helaman 12)
God's character can be learned by our own experiences with him and by the experiences of others, either that we know personally or that we can learn of in the scriptures. Experience with God is the cure for distrust in God. Those who pay attention to his hand in their lives cannot deny his goodness, mercy, and wisdom. God is love. Anything he does with you is motivated by love for you. Because of his absolute knowledge (and in contrast to anyone else), you can trust that anything he does with you is in your best interest.
As we come to know God, we also come to recognize our own nothingness, ignorance, insufficiency, and instability. Coming to recognize this is a key in breaking through the veil of unbelief (see Ether 4:15). You have to have a tenacity in keeping God's commandments: both what he has revealed and what he will reveal. That sounds deceivingly simple. Really, it is to come to the a seemingly contradictory point where you are resolute in clinging to your understanding of what is right in the face of sin while easily letting go of your deepest convictions when God presents you with something better. In short, you have to be willing to replace tradition with revelation.