Faith and Proximity

January 17, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 1:03 am   Category: Personal Revelation,Theology

“Oh Lisa, vampires are make-believe, just like elves, gremlins, and Eskimos.” (Homer)

Many of the different uses of the word “faith” in the scriptures can be accounted for by recognizing that belief itself is a complex phenomenon with many facets. The question of whether or not to believe in the existence of God is significantly different than the question of how to fully trust in the God whose existence is accepted. Despite these differences, both are questions of faith. The scriptures run the gamut from talking about faith at the most rudimentary level as a simple “desire to believe,” to talking about the faith of Abraham, whose trust in God was such that he was willing to slay Isaac, his only begotten son of promise, despite the obvious immorality of human sacrifice.

In the bloggernacle, I have seen more discussions focused on the beginnings of faith than on the later stages of faith. In this post I want to focus on issues of faith that arise for those who are not currently wrestling with the question of God’s existence. Rather than focusing on the battleground between belief and disbelief, I want to focus on terrain between belief and stronger belief. What does it mean to believe something more strongly? How do we strengthen our faith? What do we really want God to do when we pray, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief”? When God requires greater faith from us, what exactly does he want more of?

This is a fascinating subject to me, and I’ll be interested in your insights.

Some years ago when I was pondering this topic I made some observations about my experiences with belief that have stuck with me. What I realized is that my belief in something is a function of how connected it is to my reality. Further, I realized that this connection to reality is strongly related to how recently I have experienced something in the past, or how soon I expect to experience it in the future. I sometimes refer to this as the thing’s proximity. The nearer the proximity, the stronger the belief. Some examples will help.

My First Baby

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I believed she was going to have a baby. If I’d been asked, I would have said I believed very strongly. But, when I realized that my wife was going to have a baby in two weeks, it hit me in an entirely new way. A ton of bricks. Looking back after the new way had hit, it seemed almost categorically different, as though I have never really believed before. I had been storing the belief about having a baby in the “true, but will never actually happen” part of my brain. It was far enough away, and far enough removed from anything I had ever experienced, that my mind could file it away under “fiction,” and it did so without telling me what it had done.


A similar thing often happens with respect to death. We know we will die some day, but we don’t fully believe it. This is one reason many people are not motivated by their religious views. They keep death and divine judgment in a “true, but will never actually happen” portion of their brain. A brush with death, however, can bring it into the foreground. The sense of proximity to death gives it reality, and that reality makes the belief motivational. When their beliefs becomes motivational, their faith has grown. The simple fact that death seems real and proximate after a loved one dies (or we nearly die ourselves) makes our belief in death stronger than it was before. As time passes and those experiences fade into the distance, our belief in death shrinks.


I learned about the theory of relativity from my older brother when I was still in elementary school. By the time I got to college, I thought I believed in Einstein’s theory of relativity. And yet, when I learned that time dilation had been empirically measured with atomic clocks aboard a high speed aircraft flying around the earth, I was shocked. This was not a particle accelerator, which is itself hard to believe in, but an actual airplane flying around the actual earth. I was shocked almost in the way I would expect someone to be shocked who did not believe in the theory of relativity. I met the experiment with skepticism, even though I had supposedly already bought into the truth of relativity. After a bit of introspection, it was quite obvious to me that some part of my brain had not accepted the effects of relativity, but I had no idea of that until I was sitting in a physics class one day and I learned about the experiment.

Did I really believe in relativity? How much of my knowledge of relativity was actually being stored in the part of my brain devoted to remembering fictional stories? In the same vein, how much of our religious belief system is stored in the fiction sections of our brains? Maybe a lot. Would there be a certain shock at seeing an angel, a shock that stems from the realization that angels are actually real? Really real? Maybe this is the same phenomenon we experience when seeing a movie star for the first time. You think that you believe movie stars are real people, but if you ever meet one face to face, you find yourself surprised that they are real people. But why should you be surprised? You shouldn’t be, and you wouldn’t be if you fully believed in them in the first place. If we have a hard time believing in the existence of movie stars, how much harder is it to believe in God?


Alma asks:

15 Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body? (Alma 5)

26 And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now? (Alma 5)

Can you see it in your minds eye? Is it real? Have you had an experience with God or his Spirit which made them real to your mind? Have you had one recently? I am convinced that from a purely psychological standpoint, we cannot continue to believe in God with any degree of strength if we do not experience in our lives things which ground those beliefs in our reality. What do you think?


  1. Very good Jacob!

    I had a similar experience when it was about time to go on a mission. I always knew I would go, but with about 1 week until I was to enter the MTC – pow! It really hit me. What I was going to be doing, wow. My prayers for minor repentance and testimony were answered during this important time and continue to be an anchor for me today.

    I also thought about some of our ordinances – like baptism – as I read your post. Things that wake up our minds to make things seem more ‘real’ to us.

    I think that this may be one of the reasons I want to take certain things in the gospel more literally than others might. I feel the need for all this to seem very real. The more the better.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — January 17, 2007 @ 9:38 am

  2. My reaction to Death and the Baby would be that perhaps it is not the belief in the baby that has changed, but the belief in the necessity to do something about the belief in the baby. That sentence is a whopper, but is as clear as I can make it.

    A good example is that when I was Catholic, I believed in God, but I didn’t really believe I had to do anything particular with my belief. I did not believe my belief required much of me. Now I am LDS and I believe in God, and I believe that that requires a lot of me.

    As for the relativity example, I think that is different. I think that is an example of Faith increasing dramatically, as you no longer had just an appeal to Authority to lean on, but also an appeal to Reason, as well as an appeal to the senses (albeit vicariously via an appeal to authority) Thus your ways of knowing or believing were dramatically increased.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 17, 2007 @ 10:21 am

  3. I like this Jacob. Thanks.

    Comment by Rusty — January 17, 2007 @ 10:21 am

  4. Also, regarding the movie star phenomena, I don’t hink we didn’t believe in the movie star, It is more that we didn’t believe we would be in the same place as the movie star. I could joke and say I think we will be even more surprised to see movie stars where we are after we die, but I hate to imply I know where I am going, cause I don’t. Anyway, the surprise could be seen as lack of faith in self, as opposed to not believing in the movie star.

    (As an aside, when I was a kid, my first “celebrity experience” was staying in a Hotel in Indianapolis that a bunch of professional wrestlers were staying at and being in the resteraunt of the Hotel with several of them while we all had breakfast. I was very conscientious, and tried not to stare or care as they ate and ate and ate, while I had my toast and orange juice. I was surprised that the waiters and hostesses paid such good attention to me while all those “rich” celebrities were there. It turns out that professional wrestlers aren’t very good tippers (Whereas, I was 10 and didn’t understand tipping and laid down a twenty saying keep the change for my toast and juice.) That’s a random memory for ya.)

    Comment by Matt W. — January 17, 2007 @ 1:45 pm

  5. Eric, The MTC is a great example, thanks.


    (#2) It is true that as the birth of my first baby got closer, I had to start actually doing things to prepare, but the experience I am describing was more than that. I had truly never internalized that it was going to happen to me. The reality of the situation had not hit me.

    (#4) As I have listened to people relate the experience of seeing a movie star, I have heard them say things that are quite odd. It is common to hear people express surprise that they are regular people, that they are somewhere between 5-7 feet tall, etc. Now, those are pretty weird things to be surprised by. I’m sure that some people are more in touch with the reality of celebrities than other people, so maybe this example doesn’t strike a cord with you, but I am surprised if you have never had an experience like what I am trying to get across with my three examples.

    Ultimately, my interest here lies in the psychology of belief. Because the gospel stresses the need for strong faith, I think psychology can shed an interesting light on things. For example, the act of saying daily prayers has the potential to help us keep God connected to our reality. I have wondered if saying audible prayers might be even better for this, but I’m not sure. Certainly, a regular contact with things spiritual helps to keep the spiritual world from seeming like an imaginary world.

    Rusty, thanks.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 17, 2007 @ 3:36 pm

  6. Jacob, here is something we would both agree on . . . we both believe in a “spiritual world” contra the absolute rationalists.

    For myself today, I pray for a deeper faith.

    Comment by Todd Wood — January 17, 2007 @ 10:41 pm

  7. Jacob- re the baby- I am sure you are aware of the process known as “the mourning process”. I believe it could also be called the change process. Denial is one of the first steps. How do you think denial of change fits into faith? Is denial really doubt? I am interested in your thoughts on this.

    I don’t know if I am in touch with the reality of celebrities, but internally I do have a short circuit somewhere that tells me people want to be left alone. This affects how I react to celebrities, home teaching, tracting, etc. It’s the “Mind your own Business” concept, I guess.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 18, 2007 @ 8:33 am

  8. I want to focus on terrain between belief and stronger belief.
    I think lots of us struggle with this…we know how to apply Moroni 10 and Alma 32, but it doesn’t seem to work quite so dramatically with faith/greater faith. My faith certainly took a leap when I had a brush with death (car accident), but what are we supposed to do, take up extreme sports?
    It seems that in your post you are postulating that greater proximity brings greater faith. So we just need to figure out how to get closer to God, right? It’s hard to be satisfied with the miniscule results we get with the old chestnuts: prayer, fasting, scripture study, but they do work in the long run. If anyone figures out something quicker, I sure would like to know.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — January 18, 2007 @ 12:00 pm

  9. In the scriptures I think this is what being spiritually born of God is all about. For me, there was definitely a point in my life where the Savior became real, 3-dimensional, actual in a manner that I have difficulty finding the language for. I can say that this came from direct application of faith in him to problems in my reality. So in a sense I guess I agree with you, Jacob. But in another sense, It is the power of his love consuming my flesh that I remember and that can seem as real now as it did then without any direct application. I believe that these experiences are key to knowing the Savior, and becoming like him. They are a baptism of fire and we need to rekindle that as we are able from time to time. Too often day to day life gets in the way, that is why I think conscious, going out of our way, acts of service are critical to keeping these kinds of embers burning.

    Comment by Doc — January 18, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

  10. Isn’t it interesting that you can just write “Homer” and we all know that you’re not referring to the Greek poet?

    Comment by larryco_ — January 18, 2007 @ 4:30 pm

  11. Matt,

    I think “being in denial” is related, but significantly different. People generally go into denial when they are faced with something so terrible that they cannot accept into their reality. It is related in that it deals with accepting something into our reality. The difference (and it is a big one) is that being in denial usually refers to a situation where the reality of the situation is very clear, but a person can’t accept due to the trauma associated with accepting it. By contrast, I am suggesting that when something is too far removed from our reality, we are psychologically unable to believe in it strongly. It unavoidably slips into the “fiction” section of our brains (in some ways, obviously not all).


    what are we supposed to do, take up extreme sports?

    That made me laugh, thanks. I like what you said about prayer and scriptures. They do help with this, even though it is not in the dramatic way we sometimes hope for. Good point. Just to clarify what I am saying, though, the examples of the baby, death, and relativity are an attempt to illustrate the phenomenon I am thinking of, but I don’t think having lots of brushes with death is how we are supposed to build our faith. In my experience, the best way to ground God in my reality is to have experiences with him. When I have what we call a “spiritual experience” the reality of God is very apparent to me. As I am separated from that experience by time, that reality fades. Which is why,


    I agree with you totally, even on the part you seemed to be thinking we disagreed. The experience you spoke of is one of the most powerful ways to bring God into our reality.


    I think there might be some textual clues in the quote that help to remove any ambiguity.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 18, 2007 @ 7:36 pm

  12. Wow. That’s a great way to read those two verses, Jacob. Cool.

    Comment by Jack — January 18, 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  13. Jacob:

    I believe that being in denial can also come with other major changes which may not be considered terrible or traumatic, but drastic and dramatic. Of Course, the length of the period of denial may change per person and situation, but lottery winners (I can’t believe I won!), released Bishops (New Bishop, let’s have a meeting so we can go over the life and times of every single member)etc.

    There is a difference between the negative change process and the positive change process, but I believe it is more past the denial stage, and in the blame stage and sorrow stage. These become the credit and rejoice stages of positive change.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 19, 2007 @ 8:26 am

  14. Matt,

    I wouldn’t have considered a person who just one the lottery who “can’t believe they won” to be in denial, but you could be right. I might be too restrictive in my understanding of that term.

    Be that as it may, the big difference is not one of negative change vs. positive change. I am saying that with proximity comes reality, and a new quality of belief. This proximity need not be tied to any change at all, except the change in proximity. When my wife was going to be having a baby, the reality of it hit me a short time before it actually happened. There was a shift in the quality of my belief, but not a shift in the quality of the evidence, and not a shift in my situation. I had been very sure my wife was pregnant for a long time. I had seen ultrasounds of the baby months before. I was very convinced. I had been buying things for the baby and preparing things for several months as well. We already had a crib, etc. The only thing that changed was that the delivery got nearer in time. As it got nearer in proximity, my belief took on a new, more realistic quality.

    Denial seems to be tied to a difficulty accepting something. Rather than the reality of the situation increasing belief, denial seems to be a defense mechanism by which people protect themselves from dealing with that reality. In that sense, it is almost the opposite of what I am talking about. The more I consider it, the more I think the mourning process, or the change process (as you have called it), is really a different experience than what I am describing. It is not really about change, per se.

    Consider the example of having an angel make an appearance. I have never seen an angel, but I believe in them. And yet, if one showed up in my room tonight, I fear that part of my reaction would be surprise that angels really do exist as part of the real world. I don’t think the quote from Homer would be funny if we didn’t all recognize that there is something unreal about things we have only ever heard about.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 19, 2007 @ 11:30 am

  15. I think the Homer quote is funny because one of those things is not like the other, and it is funny to laugh at the guy who doesn’t believe in something that is obviously real.

    Anyway, the Denial path is tangential to your point, I now see, so I won’t belabor it.

    That said, I can see your point about proximity. Does that mean if we perceived the end of the world being closer we would have great faith? Maybe there is something to that. I’m not sure I can make a measurement on it though, and I am not sure I can convince myself the world is about to end or the millenium is about to start in some proximate sense. I don’t know how to make myself feel closer to God when the proximity is a matter of time.

    “Spatially”, I can feel closer to God by making the effort to acknowledge his interaction in my life and by asking for his interaction in my life. (We ask thee… We thank thee…) I think I have a tendancy to only go through the motions of this exercise, without really giving it the due diligence it deserves. So, for me the question becomes a matter of how to keep myself aware of God’s presence in my life.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 19, 2007 @ 11:49 am

  16. Matt,

    I agree with what you said in #15. I think this question you asked is important:

    Does that mean if we perceived the end of the world being closer we would have great faith?

    In one sense, I have suggested the answer is yes. But clearly, it this cannot be answered with an unqualified yes. Recall that “the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). I think this highlights that there are other aspects to faith besides simple belief.

    For example, I would argue that there is, in the word faith, an implied allegiance. To have faith in God entails, minimally, that we are rooting for God’s team. Ultimately, the strength of our faith is also tied to our standing with God. In my experience, it is hard to petition God in great faith if I know I have been living well below the level of righteousness I am capable of. So, yes, I think there are other things to consider in regard to faith.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 19, 2007 @ 3:15 pm

  17. Here are some challenges I see, at this point.

    1. For you:

    My Faith decreases as I fail to stand with God.
    My ability to stand with God decreases as I have less Faith.

    How do we break this negative cycle in those who are falling away or investigating the church from the outside looking in?

    2. For me:

    My ability to recognize God in my life decreases as I have less faith. My Faith decreases as I fail to recognize God in my life?

    Same negative cycle.

    How do we, as a missionary minded church, increase people’s proximity to Christ? Is the best we can do is be Christlike in their presence?

    Comment by Matt W. — January 19, 2007 @ 3:33 pm

  18. Jacob (#11) I got that spiritual experiences were what you were emphasizing–it’s just that it is hard to, let us say, “force” a spiritual experience. It’s like opening a rosebud. And I think Boyd K. Packer even had something to say about that very thing…

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — January 19, 2007 @ 11:05 pm

  19. Ahhh, BiV,

    Thanks for the clarification. I see your point, and it is a very good one. I wish I had a good response.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 21, 2007 @ 10:57 am

  20. While we can not force a spiritual experience, we can foster an environment where ones can be had.

    This is goig to sound super-lame, but last night, as I put my daughter to bed, my daughter was going through the normal routine of all the reasons she couldn’t go to bed (She’s 3) and she typically gets up anywhere between midnight and 4 am and gets in bed with us becasue she’s cold or scared or had a bad dream or thristy etc. Well, last night, while we were working on praying with her, we talked about how Heavenly Father could help her not be scared of the dark. And she stayed in bed all night, and this morning, the first thing my three year old said to me was that Heavenly Father helped her to not be scared of the dark last night. That is a choice experience.

    Also, I think having a journal allows our spiritual experiences to last a bit longer.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 22, 2007 @ 8:54 am