Faith and Hope: Qualities of a Successful Missionary

Douglas N. Marsh, “Faith and Hope: Qualities of a Successful Missionary,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2007 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 180–188.

Faith and Hope: Qualities of a Successful Missionary

Douglas N. Marsh

Ironically, one of the largest problems with gospel study is familiarity. Certain passages, stories, or verses are deemed of such importance that they are frequently recited; unfortunately, repetition often breeds a sort of callousness, as though readers subconsciously feel that if a verse is well known, it is likewise well understood. Few passages are repeated more often than the fourth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, given its informal adoption as the missionary code. The words are read and recalled daily by missionaries around the world, who rarely have any time to ponder on the meaning of the words. Verse 5, for example, states that “faith [and] hope . . . qualify him for the work” (D&C 4:5), and though faith and hope are very similar, there are fundamental differences that are important to understand. Increased comprehension of these two important pillars of our worship makes it easier to withstand the trials of life and grow closer to God.

Faith—A Hope in That Which Is True

The need for increased understanding is particularly important regarding faith. Definitions of the term faith vary widely; in fact, as Gerald N. Lund noted, there even exists a “tendency for prophets to use one word—faith—to discuss different aspects of faith.”[1] The Prophet Joseph Smith, describing faith “in its most unlimited sense,” defined faith as “the first great governing principle which has power, dominion, and authority over all things.”[2] This definition is eloquent but somewhat general. A more exact definition of the term, perhaps, is found in Alma 32:21—”if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” Using this definition, one could reword Doctrine & Covenants 4:5 by saying that faith (a specific hope for things which are not seen but which are true), as well as hope in general, “qualify him for the work.”

It may seem curious that faith and hope would be listed together when their meanings are so similar. Nevertheless, significant differences between the two terms exist. Faith is a more specific type of hope that must be based on a true law or principle, and because of this limitation, there are certain extents to which the concept of faith does not apply. For example, by keeping the Word of Wisdom, we exercise faith in God’s promise that we “shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint” (D&C 89:19–20). This promise does not assure its faithful follower a long, healthy life or an absence of sickness; instead, we must hope for these blessings. In this example, faith is distinguished by its basis on a specific law or principle.

Understanding these laws and principles, therefore, is critical to the exercise of faith. Many returned missionaries can recall believing or being told that an increase in faith would result in imminent baptisms. While promises of treasures of wisdom are offered to those who keep the Word of Wisdom, there is no eternal law promising baptisms even to faithful, obedient missionaries. Doctrine & Covenants 4:4, which proclaims that “the field is white already to harvest,” is often interpreted as an assurance of success to the faithful missionary, but a white field does not signify a fruitful crop—rather, it indicates the season of harvest. Instead of promising success, the image of the white field is an urgent call for laborers, as demonstrated by Doctrine & Covenants 33:3—”behold, the field is white already to harvest; and it is the eleventh hour, and the last time that I shall call laborers into my vineyard.” Doctrine & Covenants 31:4 rephrases these words to paint an even more urgent picture: “the field which is white already to be burned” (emphasis added). Success is not necessarily guaranteed in any of these verses.

Though the promise that others will be converted to the gospel is not necessarily given to the laborers in Doctrine & Covenants 4:2, it is promised that through their labors, they will secure their own eternal welfare. “He that thrusteth in his sickle with his might” may or may not be the instrument in bringing the gospel to others, but as a result of his work, he “layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul” (D&C 4:4; emphasis added). It is by faith that a missionary may work to secure these promised blessings, but a missionary must hope to receive other blessings that are not necessarily promised, such as success in finding those willing to accept his message. Although they are fundamentally different, both faith and hope are therefore crucial to missionary work; for, as the Lord said, faith and hope “qualify him for the work” (D&C 4:5).

The Source of Faith

Having distinguished faith from hope in its more general sense, the next step is to look at the principles governing our faith in God. “Faith,” as Joseph Smith taught, is “the principle of power,” and understanding the nature of that power is the key to applying that power in our lives.[3] The Prophet further taught that for us as rational beings to exercise faith in God, we must have “a correct idea of [God’s] character, perfections, and attributes.”[4] Elder Bruce R. McConkie concurs with this thought, stating, “No one can have faith in a God of whom he knows nothing.”[5] Understanding the nature of God is so essential that Christ Himself states that to “know . . . the only true God” is equivalent to “life eternal” (John 17:3). In Lectures on Faith, the characteristics of God that enable man to have faith in Him are enumerated (and here summarized): God is omnipotent, merciful, unchanging, truthful, not a respecter of persons, and loving.[6] These characteristics not only enable God to make and keep promises with His children but incline Him to do so as well. An omnipotent and unchanging God is powerful enough to fulfill His word, while His mercy and love demonstrate His desire to do so. The fact that He is truthful and not a respecter of persons shows us that the sure promises God has extended apply to all, making everyone eligible to receive the promised blessings.

“Making the human family acquainted with [God’s] attributes” so that they “might be enabled to exercise faith” is one of the principal reasons the scriptures have been given.[7] The Prophet taught that to exercise faith, people must have not only correct ideas of the character of God but also “knowledge . . . that the course of life which they pursue is according to the will of God.”[8] The scriptures thus not only familiarize readers with the characteristics of God but also inform readers of the laws He commands His children to obey and the blessings associated with obedience to those laws, enabling them to exercise faith in God.

Mere familiarity with God’s promises, however, is not equal to faith. Even if readers are inclined to accept what they read as true, this is only belief, which must be distinguished from faith just as hope has been differentiated. To believe in God is an important action, but left to itself, mere belief is ultimately insufficient; after all, as James taught, “the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). Faith requires that we understand the laws “upon which all blessings are predicated,” and then we must obey the law upon which the blessing is predicated to obtain the blessing (D&C 130:20–21). Even so, the role of belief cannot be disregarded. Alma implored his listeners to give place for belief, allowing his words to penetrate their hearts: “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; emphasis added). The relationship between belief and faith prompted Elder Gene R. Cook to remark, “It would appear that belief is the beginning of the process of acquiring faith.”[9]

To continue this process of acquiring faith, we must act on our beliefs. It is one thing to believe that a seed that is properly planted and cultivated will yield fruit; it is quite another to actually plant and cultivate the seed. Even if the exercise of faith is little more than an experiment, positive results will determine the reliability of the laws and principles upon which faith was exercised: “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” (Alma 32:33). As knowledge of the most basic principles becomes sure, faith will continue to be exercised and grow, allowing us to “reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering”—”the fruit of the tree of life” (vv. 43, 40).

Finding Hope

Even when properly exercised, faith still does not guarantee certain results; this is especially true regarding results that depend on the agency of others, such as investigation of and conversion to the gospel. Yet both faith and hope are necessary in the pursuit of those goals. While we must have hope in true, eternal principles, hope in this limited scope only—certain and sure as it may be—is insufficient. To reach our greatest potential and obtain a fullness of joy, we must also hope for things that may or may not be obtained.

This idea may weigh down upon those confronted by it. In a world that is growing more and more difficult, with burdens that are becoming increasingly heavy, pessimism seems to be the surest way to avoid disappointment. Elder John H. Groberg related a Tongan proverb demonstrating this point: “There is no pain so great as a hope unfulfilled.”[10] To hope for that which we may fail to obtain is to expose ourselves to inevitable disappointment, and we may reasonably question why such an endeavor should be undertaken. Even though it exposes us to a wide range of disappointment and heartache, hope also gives meaning to life. “A person without hope,” Elder Groberg taught, “is like a person without a heart; there is nothing to keep him going. As the heart gives life to the body, so it seems that hope is an enlivening influence to the spirit—which is the real us.”[11] Any person who refuses to venture into any realm where safety from harm or disappointment is not guaranteed can never reach their full potential. “A ship in harbor is safe,” so says the proverb; “but that is not what ships are for.” What’s more, as we shy away from opportunities when exposed to insecurity, our hope in even those things which are true begin to erode away and are replaced by doubt and fear, the antithesis of faith.[12] “Pessimism,” President Gordon B. Hinckley has taught, “so often leads to defeat.”[13] Despite the dangers of exposure, hope must be encouraged, protected, and increased if we are to become all that God desires.

To maintain hope in this more general sense, we must first cling to our hope in that which is true; that is, faith. As we exercise our faith in the promises which have been extended, we find in them a sure foundation upon which we may fortify ourselves against disappointment and despair. “Only with an eternal perspective of God’s great plan of happiness,” as Elder Russell M. Nelson taught, “can we ever find a more excellent hope.”[14] The promises and blessings found in the scriptures are legion. To those who search in vain for hope comes the reassuring promise that “ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal” (Moroni 7:41). When we possess and exercise faith, the hope in that which is true, we are encircled in the arms of safety (see Alma 34:16), protected by the divine assurance that no matter what lies ahead of us, the promises of the Lord are sure: “Though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled” (D&C 1:38). “Thus,” teaches Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “true hope focuses us on the great realities—’things as they really are’—and frees us from unneeded anxiety. . . . When we are down and discouraged, the hope of Christ can lift us up lest we remain vulnerable overlong.”[15] To make hope possible in its greater extent, we must first have faith, or the hope in that which is true.

To help us maintain our hope in that which is true, from time to time we must bring to mind past instances in which the Lord’s promises have been fulfilled. This is partially the reason President Spencer W. Kimball once suggested that the most important word in the dictionary could be the word “remember,” which, as Ronald D. Anderson points out, appears 240 times in the Book of Mormon.[16] Being mindful of that which the Lord has done makes finding hope for the future a much easier task—as Elder Nelson also points out, “a correlation exists between hope and gratitude.”[17]

Aware of the works of the Lord in days past and secure in the hope of His promises for the future, we find a sure foundation upon which we may build a more expansive hope. Missionaries may not knock on doors with the promise of converts destined to hear their message, but they do have the assurance of salvation to their souls as they obey the commandment to teach the gospel. Their obedience to this commandment opens to them the possibility that a soul will be brought unto God and the great joy associated with Him (see D&C 18:15). In this example, as well as countless others, hope in that which is true allows for hope to penetrate and empower us. As Elder Maxwell taught, if we have “this precise and basic hope, insofar as such strategic things as immortality and individuality are concerned, then the spirit of hopefulness will pervade our lives, giving to us a quality of life that is characterized by hopefulness. . . . If we have this kind of ultimate hope, there is no room for proximate despair.”[18]

Even if they are rooted in this “ultimate hope,” our other hopes may nevertheless fail to be realized from time to time. The “proximate despair” that comes from the unrealized potential of our greatest hopes can be disappointing, devastating, crushing, and crippling. When such moments come, two things must be remembered.

First, righteous desires, though they may not always come to pass, will nevertheless be remembered. In the twelfth chapter of the book of Ether, Moroni “prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity”—certainly, a righteous desire. The Lord did not promise Moroni that his request would be granted, but He rewarded Moroni for his diligence: “If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore, thy garments shall be made clean” (Ether 12:36–37). This example shows that even if hope fails to yield the desired results, righteous desires will not be overlooked by a mindful God.

Second, it is important to retain a proper perspective when confronted with disappointment. At times, life may seem to be little more than a chronologically ordered stream of shattered dreams. It is disturbing to consider the ease and swiftness with which many of the things we cherish most in life may disappear. It is at these moments, when our hopes vanish, that our faith is most sorely tested. We cannot let go of our faith when our hopes do not come to pass. Though buffeted by trials both great and small, we can and must cling to the source of both faith and hope. “Hope springs eternal,” said Elder Nelson, “only if that hope springs from Him who is eternal.”[19]

A Perfect Brightness of Hope

These oft-repeated promises and assurances found in the scriptures are capable of sustaining a weary soul through many of life’s darkest hours, though familiarity may cause our understanding of these verses to be less clear than they ought to be. As we examine the differences between faith and hope, understanding the principles on which these blessings are predicated, we find a sure foundation upon which we may build our lives. “Hope,” whether it is hope in that which is true or otherwise, “becomes an anchor to the soul. To this anchor, the faithful can cling, securely tethered to the Lord.”[20] Thus, in the darkest moments of life, the sure promises of the Lord shine through the darkness: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).


[1] Gerald N. Lund, Jesus Christ, Key to the Plan of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 135.

[2] Joseph Smith, comp., Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 8. The author is aware of the claims that Joseph Smith may not have been alone in writing Lectures on Faith, but, for the purposes of this study, concurs with the widely accepted theory that Joseph was the principal author.

[3] Smith, Lectures on Faith, 1:15.

[4] Smith, Lectures on Faith, 3:4.

[5] Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 166.

[6] See Smith, Lectures on Faith, 3:12–18

[7] Smith, Lectures on Faith, 4:2.

[8] Smith, Lectures on Faith, 6:1.

[9] Gene R. Cook, Living by the Power of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 22.

[10] John H. Groberg, “There Is Always Hope,” in Hope (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 47.

[11] Groberg, “There Is Always Hope,” 48.

[12] See Smith, Lectures on Faith, 6:12.

[13] Gordon B. Hinckley, Faith: The Essence of True Religion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 75.

[14] Russell M. Nelson, Perfection Pending, and Other Favorite Discourses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998), 116.

[15] Neal A. Maxwell, Notwithstanding My Weakness (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 49.

[16] Ronald D. Anderson, “Leitworter in Helaman and 3 Nephi,” in Helaman through 3 Nephi 8: According to Thy Word, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1992), 243.

[17] Nelson, Perfection Pending, 115.

[18] Maxwell, Notwithstanding My Weakness, 50.

[19] Nelson, Perfection Pending, 116.

[20] Nelson, Perfection Pending, 117.