If 114 members of the church (mostly local leaders) were asked to define a core gospel principle, how many different definitions would there need to be for you to say, “we have a problem”, “this is not clear”, or “Salt Lake, we could use improved direction”?

As a social scientist, I am focused on identifying and measuring psychological attributes (i.e., aspects about people that occur within their brain that you cannot see, such as trust, engagement, satisfaction, relationship quality). I have this focus because if I want to be able to help someone develop and/or improve a psychological attribute, I need to be able to (1) isolate it, (2) measure it, and (3) determine ways to improve it. For example, if I want to measure and improve employee engagement, I need to be able to distinguish engagement from similar yet different attributes (e.g., satisfaction), develop adequate questions/methods to measure engagement, and study what factors most strongly drive changes in engagement (e.g., does praise drive employee engagement better than having a best friend at work?).

One of the first things that I learned in my doctoral program is that in order to do these three things you must start with a clear and precise definition. The more clear and precise the definition, the better you will be at isolating, measuring, and improving that psychological attribute.

Because of this training, I am admittedly sensitive to how we define gospel principles. And, I have found that for many important gospel principles we have two common and related definitional problems. First, we commonly do not define concepts clearly or completely. Second, often because of the lack of clarity, many different definitions for the same principle exist, increasing confusion.  For example, charity is an attribute we all highly value. Yet, it is an attribute that (1) has not been defined very specifically (“pure love of Christ” or “everlasting love” are not very specific or measurable definitions), and (2) has been defined in a wide variety of ways. Because of this, it is difficult to determine how much charity we possess and how to go about improving our charity.

In this and a coming article, I am going to take on the definitions of two principles of the gospel that I believe members of the church have the most confusion about, and they just so happen to be the first principles of the gospel: faith and repentance. Given that these are the first principles of the Gospel, they should be principles that we can clearly define. This article addresses the definition of faith.

As I try to tackle the definition of faith, I feel I must make it known that I am no professional scriptorian, and it is not my purpose to provide an absolute definition of faith that puts to rest the question forever (I don’t think that is my place). But, it is my purpose to help leaders better understand the topic of faith so that they can articulate it more clearly to the people that they lead, and thereby be able to help those they serve increase their faith.


Let me give you a taste of some of the confusion surrounding the definition of faith by investigating the definitions of faith provided by those that speak at General Conference. I do so not to be critical of our leaders, but to demonstrate the variety of definitions of faith provided to the body of the Church. In the last five years of general conference, faith has been defined as:

To summarize, across nine recent talks, faith is defined or described 11 different ways, with the most commonly used definition or description being, “A principle of action and power,” which is more of a broad description than a specific definition.

Of course, it is important to recognize that faith is a rich, deep, and complex principle. So, it is not surprising to see a variety of definitions and descriptions of it. But, the variety of definitions does not help in isolating it, measuring it, and improving it.

Now, let me go back to the question that I asked at the beginning of this article: If 114 members of the church (mostly local leaders) were asked to define a core gospel principle, how many different definitions would there need to be for you to say, “we have a problem”, “this is not clear”, or “Salt Lake, we could use improved direction”?

During the Fall of 2017, Leading Saints administered a survey to its followers. 160 people responded to the survey. All but two of the people held a calling at the time of the survey (thus, most are presumed to be active), and many of these people held leadership positions (e.g., relief society president, first counselor in bishopric) and/or positions of helping others understand the gospel. The average age of respondents was 49 years old. Given the callings these individuals held and their age, I would like to think that these were people that are well above average in their gospel knowledge.

One of the questions asked was: “How do you define faith?” This question was designed to identify how they might define the topic if they were sitting in a Sunday school class and were asked the question by the person teaching. There were 114 people that responded to this question. Most of the responses were 1-2 sentences in length (see table below for examples).

After reviewing these definitions, I grouped similar definitions together to assess the variety at which we define faith. In total, I found 18 different definitions of faith.

As I compiled this table, one question I kept asking myself is: If I were in a Sunday school class and members of the class responded to the question, “what is faith?” by the 18 examples provided in the table, would I come to a clear or clearer understanding of faith or would I leave feeling more confused?

After reviewing the definitions, there were two common limitations that stood out to me. First, I believe that most of the definitions captured an element of faith, but I did not feel like any of the definitions were comprehensive. For example, I do not disagree that faith involves believing in something that you can’t prove, but faith is more than just believing in something. There is indication that faith requires action in addition to belief.

Second, the majority of the definitions are founded on words that are meant to be different than faith. For example, belief, hope, and knowledge are the foundation of approximately 70% of the definitions provided. Yet, faith is different or more than any of those terms. For example:

  • Faith is more than just believing something, even if it is in something that is “not seen.” The Bible Dictionary states: “Faith…is more than belief, since true faith always moves its possessor to some kind of physical and mental action.”
  • If faith and hope were synonymous, then we would not be advised to have both faith and hope in the same verse (Alma 7:24, D&C 12:8 1 Cor 13:13, Moroni 7:1, etc.)
  • Alma suggests that when we have a knowledge, faith no longer exists (Alma 32:33-34). Let me use a football analogy. If I throw a football in normal conditions, I know it will fall at some point. No faith is required. But, if I throw a football for someone else to catch, there is not a surety that they will catch it. In this instance, throwing the football is more akin to faith.

Coming to a Clearer Understanding of Faith

To me, the word that most closely resembles faith is trust (about 9% of survey respondents founded their definition on trust). Trust is defined a variety of ways that usually involve having confidence in another or having a willingness to be vulnerable to another. I happen to do research on trust in the workplace, and understanding trust has really helped me better understand faith.

To understand the relationship between faith and trust, it is important to understand how we evaluate how much we trust another. There are three primary attributes that we evaluate (either consciously or subconsciously) when determining how much to trust another person:

  • Their ability (can they do what I am expecting them to do?)
  • Their benevolence (the degree to which I feel they have my best interests in mind)
  • Their integrity (the degree to which they live up to the values that I possess)

When we first meet someone, we essentially speculate where they fall on each of these attributes (I’ll use a 1-10 scale, with 10 being high). For example, if they have a known reputation for good work, we are more likely to evaluate them as being high on ability (e.g., 8 or 9); or, if they are covered with tattoos and piercings, we may be initially inclined to evaluate them as being low on integrity (e.g., 2 or 3). But, over time and across multiple interactions, we come to zero in on what we feel to be their standing across ability, benevolence, and integrity.

To get us closer to faith, I believe that we also are inclined to evaluate how much we trust God. Each of us have had our own experiences with God, and if you are human and you are honest with yourself, your experiences and interactions with God likely suggest that God has not demonstrated a perfect 10 across ability, benevolence, and integrity. For example, think about the time where you feel like he didn’t answer your prayers, the time you didn’t receive blessings you felt like you deserved, or the time where he didn’t come to your rescue when you felt like he had the ability to. I think you get the point: Our experiences with God typically does not reflect perfection in him doing what we expect him to do (ability), having our best interests in mind (benevolence), or even living up to the values we possess or expect him to possess (integrity).

This is where faith comes in, the type of faith of hoping for things not seen or not having a witness or evidence of (Hebrews 11: 1; Alma 32:21 ; Ether 12:6). Faith is choosing to trust that while our perception that God’s demonstrated trust-level is below perfect (perhaps a 7 out of 10), his ability, benevolence, and integrity is really at a 10, or perfect. We are choosing to trust in something not yet seen or demonstrated to us. And then, here is a second crucial element of faith: we trust so strongly that God’s actual ability, benevolence, and integrity is a ‘10’ that we act or proceed forward as though it is a ’10.’ Stated differently, faith necessarily results in action.

Let me give you an example. Consider Emma. In the past, Emma has not been consistent with her prayers because she does not think God always hears them. She feels this way because she has sought for specific guidance, and feels like she has never received an answer. Essentially, she is feeling unloved and maybe even deceived. But, Emma decides to have more faith in God. In doing so, she changes her perspective from not feeling like God does not have her best interests in mind, to having faith that even though He did not answer her prayers, he still perfectly has her best interests in mind, and that her “non-answers” were actually in her best interests. If she truly has faith (trust in something she does not feel like has been demonstrated to her), she will necessarily demonstrate that faith by continuing to go to God in prayer.

Thus, faith is having trust and confidence in an outcome or belief even though we do not possess enough evidence or information to be certain of the outcome or belief. And, for such trust and confidence to be real, it necessarily results in acting, thinking, and behaving upon that trust and confidence.

Faith in Jesus Christ

Of course, we place an emphasis on the importance of our faith being directed toward Jesus Christ. But, what exactly does this mean in reference to the definition above? Let me share one perspective.

Regardless of what I hear members commonly say, or even what I have said in the past, I happen to believe that no one living truly “knows” that Christ suffered for our sins; that he has been resurrected; or that because he has been resurrected, we will be resurrected at some point in our eternal existence. These are not things that we can prove. So, thinking, living, and acting as though these things have occurred or will occur (in the case of us being resurrected) is having faith in Jesus Christ (i.e., trust and confidence in something we do not possess enough evidence of).

One way that I have seen this faith in action is the degree to which people are able to let go of trials, losses, and/or sins in their past, and move forward, forgive, and live with a brightness of hope. Consider the following (over-simplified) examples:

  • Mark and John each lost their wives as the result of a drunk driver. Mark is able to forgive the drunk driver, yet John is not able to forgive.
  • Sharon and Tara both had active sex lives prior to being married. Sharon is able to change her lifestyle and forgive herself. Tara is able to change her lifestyle, but unable to forgive herself and considers herself to be “damaged goods.”
  • Erik and Andrew have both struggled with self-confidence. Erik internalizes the idea that Christ suffered for him personally, making him feel of greater worth, increasing his self-confidence. Andrew never truly internalizes the idea that Christ suffered for him personally, and continues to struggle with self-confidence.

Although over-simplified, these examples each demonstrate two people who do not have any certainty regarding Christ’s atonement. But, even without this certainty, Mark, Sharon, and Erik all exercise greater faith in Jesus Christ by thinking, living, and forgiving as though they have such certainty. Stated differently, they are trusting in something they cannot see to the degree that they make changes or act differently (e.g., think differently, forgive).

Additional Thought

There is an additional element related to faith that deserves greater attention than what generally occurs within our church. To introduce this element, consider the people in the scriptures or church history that are examples of possessing great faith. Think about Joseph Smith, Lehi, Paul, Enos, or even the woman of Canaan of whom Jesus Christ said possessed great faith (Matt 15:21-28). What do these people have in common?

Before I give an answer to that question, let me suggest that there are at least two different ways we can exercise our faith.

Avoidance Faith.

First, we can exercise our faith to avoid something. I call this Avoidance Faith. Someone who exercises Avoidance Faith engages in activities to avoid losing out on blessings. Here are a few examples:

  • I pay my tithing because I am scared I will miss out on financial blessings if I do not pay my tithing
  • I go to church to avoid feeling guilty or judged by others
  • I make sure I cross all my religious “T’s” and dot all my religious “I’s” (e.g., read my scriptures every day, go to the temple frequently, serve in my calling), so that I avoid missing out on eternal blessings

An analogy that I have heard that visually captures what is going on here deals with fishing. People that primarily rely upon Avoidance Faith are like fish, that once hooked by the gospel, they feel that all they need to do is stay on “the line.” To them, this means that they need to not give any resistance and fall in line with the current of the water.

Let me be clear, Avoidance Faith is not a negative thing. It is faith. In my humble (and probably biased) opinion, this is the faith most Latter-day Saints primarily exercise (myself included). Thus, if this is the faith we are predominantly exercising, we are surely not in bad company. But, I am not sure it represents our potential for faithfulness. And, I do not think this is the type of faith that best captures our examples of great faith.

So what sets our examples of great faith apart? One word: creation. They were “actively engaged” in creating something: a new religion, a better life, a physical and spiritual destination, a stronger body of saints, a solution. Each of these people had an outcome that they were actively trying to bring about. I do not think that any of these people were “sure” or “certain” that their outcome would come to pass, but they acted as though it would.

Advancement Faith

I call this type of faith Advancement Faith. No longer are we a fish just trying to “stay on,” or are we someone that is going through the motions to be able to say that we went through the motions. Rather, we are actively creating and contributing to an outcome.

This is the faith that moves mountains. Not through some Jedi power that physically lifts a mountain off the ground and sets it somewhere else, but through the use of tools, ingenuity, and hard work. It is the faith that while we may not know how to accomplish something, we are going to learn and innovate in such a way that we bring it to pass.

While this type of faith is applicable in every aspect of our lives, ultimately, we need to have faith in Jesus Christ, which involves our eternal perspective. Which leads to this question: are you “hanging on” until the next life? Or, are you “creating” something wonderful in this life and for your next life? The very idea of “creating” your next life is something we would never think of if it wasn’t for Jesus Christ and our faith that he overcame death and sin.


Faith is the first principle of the gospel. Yet, it is a topic that few, even leaders within the LDS church, seem to have much clarity on. Based upon a recent survey of what appears to be active leaders within local LDS congregations, over 70% provided a definition of faith that was not complete, with most defining faith as something more closely resembling belief, hope, and knowledge. This is problematic because if we cannot clearly define faith, we will struggle in being able to identify and measure it in ourselves, which will subsequently limit our ability to improve our faith.

Rather than resembling belief, hope, and knowledge, faith is something that is more akin to trust, although still more than trust. I have defined faith as having trust and confidence in an outcome or belief even though we do not possess enough evidence or information to be certain of the outcome or belief. And, for such trust and confidence to be real, it necessarily results in acting, thinking, and behaving upon that trust and confidence. This definition suggests that while we may not have full trust and confidence in something because of our past experience, we choose to have full trust and confidence and act accordingly.

While we can have faith in a variety of things, a primary outlet of our faith should be in Jesus Christ and his atonement. This can play out in a variety of ways, but here are some quick examples: if we have faith (trust and confidence) in the atonement (something we cannot be certain of), we should be able to healthily (1) let go of our past and move forward toward our brighter future, (2) forgive others who have wronged us, and (3) let go of, yet still love, those we have lost.

Additionally, I presented the idea that while any faith is a positive thing, there are different types of faith: avoidance and advancement faith. We have avoidance faith when our trust in a given uncertain outcome leads us to do things to avoid negative outcomes. It is more of a passive and reactionary faith. On the other hand, advancement faith is more of an active and/or proactive faith. We have advancement faith when our trust in a given uncertain outcome leads us to create a positive outcome. The reason why we cite certain people as having great faith is because they were “actively engaged” in creating something, and they proceeded toward an outcome with full trust and confidence that the outcome would occur or be created.

It is my hope that this article helps you better understand faith so that you can better (1) identify, measure, and improve your faith, and (2) teach about it and exercise it in your calling. And, let me encourage you to exercise your advancement faith by seeking to create a positive outcome within your own sphere of responsibility.

Of course, all of these thoughts are my own. If you have ideas related to faith that could help advance others’ understanding of faith, please comment below.

Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and the Assistant Director of the Center for Leadership at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University, and a BA from Brigham Young University. Additionally, he is a former Gallup workplace analytics consultant, where he designed research efforts and engaged in data analytics to generate business solutions for dozens of organizations across various industries. He has published over 15 articles in various journals including Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management, Business Horizons, and Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. You can check out his leadership and personal success blog at ryangottfredson.com. 

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