If you’ve read the Book of Mormon, you have read this phrase a few times: “they dwindled in unbelief.” What does that mean? What is unbelief? How do you dwindle in unbelief? If ever there was a time in history when a people dwindled in unbelief, it’s now, but do we really understand what these terms mean?
In this study topic, we’ll set the stage for you to do a little digging into this topic.
Forms of the word “dwindle” appear in the scriptures twenty-four times. Remarkably, in all but one instance, the word “unbelief” appears as the thing that is dwindling. There is a definite correlation between these words to the authors of the Book of Mormon. The one instance where unbelief isn’t stated, it is still implied. Twenty-three of these references are in the Book of Mormon, with one in the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph Smith taught:
“I believe all that God ever revealed, and I never heard of a man being damned for believing too much but they are damned for unbelief.” (Sunday, 16 June 1844; Words of Joseph p. 381.
Lets dive in.
The word “unbelief” appears seventy-two times in the scriptures. So, lets start off creating a collection note by doing this search:
Dwindl* or unbelief
This nets us 73 results. Then click “create CN” to create a collection note.
Title it “Dwindling in Unbelief” and give it these 6 tags: “Unbelief, Dwindle, Belief, Faith, Doubt, Disbelief”. Press enter after each one to lock them in. Those last three are related topics and if we pull up those tags, we might want to see this topic on unbelief.
Now return to your search pane and do a search for
This returns 5 verses that all mention disbelief. I was going to merge these two searches but there is a benefit to seeing these 5 verses together and then since there’s just a few, to drag them into the collection note you’ve created.
Before we start studying these verses, we need to understand the definitions of these words we’re dealing with so we’ll turn to Webster’s 1828 dictionary for a conceptual image.
You might want to copy/paste these definitions into your master collection note so you always have them to help grasp the various shades of meaning of the words whenever you see this note. Some definitions are lengthy so I’ve summarized them as I chose. Others are short quotes from part of the definitions. You’re welcome to go get the full meanings if you’d like from one of the sites mentioned in the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary resource post.
Definitions from Webster’s 1828 Dictionary
Dwindle: To diminish; become less; shrink; waste or consume away; degenerate; sink; fall away; break; or disperse.
Belief: “an assent of mind to the truth of a declaration”
Disbelief: Refusing or denying a belief
Unbelief: “withholding of belief…disbelief of divine revelation, disbelief of the truth of the gospel, rejection of Christ as the Savior of men, and of the doctrines he taught; distrust of God’s promises and faithfulness.”
Doubt: To waiver or fluctuate in opinion, to fear, to distrust, to be in suspense or uncertainty of the truth or fact.
Faith: “4. Evangelical, justifying, or saving faith is the assent of the mind to the truth of divine revelation, on the authority of God’s testimony, accompanied with a cordial assent of the will or approbation of the heart; an entire confidence or trust in God’s character and declarations, and in the character and doctrines of Christ, with an unreserved surrender of the will to his guidance, and dependence on his merits for salvation. In other words, that firm belief of God’s testimony, and of the truth of the gospel, which influences the will, and leads to an entire reliance on Christ for salvation.”
What an amazing definition of faith. Noah Webster was truly a devout Christian and inspired by God. You’d never read this definition in a modern dictionary, and if you did, they wouldn’t let that dictionary near a school classroom! You might want to read his entire entry on faith and see his other eleven definitions (item three reminds me a little of Joseph Smith’s statement in Lectures on Faith) (http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/faith).
Now lets turn to the scriptures we’ve found. From the definitions above, it’s not perfectly clear what the difference is between disbelief and unbelief. I’m going to highlight a few verses to show where I think the meaning is heading.
In Matthew 17:14-20, we have a great example of what unbelief is and how it differs from doubt and disbelief.
A man comes to Jesus with a son possessed of a devil. The disciples had tried to cast him out, but were unable. Jesus casts out the devil and the disciples ask why they could not do it. Christ answered in verse 20 that it was because of their unbelief.
Did the disciples know Christ could cast out devils? Certainly. They didn’t doubt it could take place or have disbelief in the concept. They had witnessed Christ do it on other occasions and he sent them out to heal the sick and cast out devils (Luke 9:1-2). They were practicing and exercising their faith and belief skills. Christ is telling them they individually lacked the personal belief that they had power to do it even though they knew they were authorized to do it.
Disbelief and doubt are closely related to each other, and to unbelief. In general terms, I think of disbelief as a broad category where non-believers oppose a belief. Doubt is more personal and contains a measure of uncertainty about one’s faith in something being possible. Unbelief is when you have a personal doubt that others can to do something or have a certain experience, but it won’t happen for you. In specific terms, you may find some of these definitions blending in the scriptures so you’ll just have to be aware and watch for the context of a verse.
With this in mind, we can see that dwindling in unbelief isn’t necessarily the decline of an entire people who think God can’t do miracles for anyone anymore, but a personal lack of trust that God can do miracles in your own life or give you the experiences the prophets have had. They share their pearls to the end that we might believe we can obtain them.
Lets look at a couple more scriptures.
Alma 32:28 “Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, 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…”
Alma 33:21 “O my brethren, if ye could be healed by merely casting about your eyes that ye might be healed, would ye not behold quickly, or would ye rather harden your hearts in unbelief, and be slothful, that ye would not cast about your eyes, that ye might perish?”
In these verses, we see Alma teaching people who were members of the church. They had faith in the gospel, but they had a belief defect in their hearts. They resisted believing the personal promises of the gospel could happen for them. How damaging is unbelief?
Mormon 1:14 “And there were no gifts from the Lord, and the Holy Ghost did not come upon any, because of their wickedness and unbelief.”
Ether 4:13 “Come unto me, O ye Gentiles, and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief.”
The greater blessings of the gospel are shut out to people that have unbelief and do not take seriously the promises of the Lord that he will open the door to marvelous manifestations of power in our lives.
This very problem is what brought condemnation on the entire church in 1832. The church had only been in existence for two and a half years and in one of the great revelations of the day (D&C 84), the Lord explains how Moses sought to bring the children of Israel into God’s presence, but they hardened their hearts (ie. unbelief) and God closed that door.
They knew Moses was having these experiences so they had faith in God’s promises, but they didn’t want it for themselves. As a result, God took Moses out of their presence and gave them a lesser law. This didn’t mean everyone had to stay at that level though, as we still see others in the Old Testament after Moses, ascending on high and having great spiritual experiences.
Further down this revelation, after explaining the oath and covenant of the priesthood, the Lord announces that the church as a whole is under condemnation for unbelief. [Comments in brackets are mine.]
54 And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received [they didn’t act on the promises]–
55 Which vanity [treating sacred things lightly or of no value] and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.
56 And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.
57 And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written-
58 That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.”
Whoa, we’re under condemnation because of unbelief till we remember the Book of Mormon and to DO what’s in it, not just talk about it… Doing brings forth fruit, otherwise we get a scourge and judgment because we are unworthy to be called the Lord’s people.
A stated purpose of the Book of Mormon is to show people the great things the Lord has done. Why? Because the spiritual events that blessed the lives of all the prophets, are 100% ours to claim personally, otherwise God is a respecter of persons and a changeable God. They are meant for us.
The people in 1832 weren’t taking advantage of the smorgasbord of blessings available to them as shown in the Book of Mormon, the new covenant. They needed to rise up and become Israel, the people of God, the people God speaks to face-to-face even as many of the prophets experienced and recorded. This is why the Book of Mormon contains the fulness of the gospel, because it contains the entire spiritual path of instructions that lead one up to and including stepping into the presence of the Lord. One of the great warnings of the Book of Mormon is to believe in these experiences of others and then seek them so we don’t dwindle in unbelief.
Just as Moses and other prophets have tried to bring the children of Israel into God’s presence, President Russell M. Nelson has clearly stated this goal as well. In the April 2016 General Conference Priesthood session, he made this statement (underlining mine, italics his):
“I urgently plead with each one of us to live up to our privileges as bearers of the priesthood. In a coming day, only those men who have taken their priesthood seriously, by diligently seeking to be taught by the Lord Himself, will be able to bless, guide, protect, strengthen, and heal others. Only a man who has paid the price for priesthood power will be able to bring miracles to those he loves and keep his marriage and family safe, now and throughout eternity.” – President Russell M. Nelson
Now continue your study of the verses. As you study the verses, keep in mind some questions as you study. It would be profitable for you right now to make a list of questions you would like this topic to answer for you. I’ve put some below to get you started. Note anything you want about verses in their basic notes to the right of the verses, but all the unique insights into this topic, put in the master note area with a reference to the verse. That way you always have a master summary of the topic to consult.
Why do people dwindle in unbelief?
How do we convince people to believe? (My personal belief is we are not casting our pearls enough to give people the confidence to make the effort to obtain pearls of their own. When we share real spiritual experiences with others, it inspires them to try it out for themselves. It gives us confidence to plant and water and nourish the seed with the hope and expectation it will grow for us just like it did for someone else. This is how we put oil in our lamps and it helps others have confidence to try.)
How does the heart see?
What items of unbelief do I have?
How do I overcome my unbelief? (maybe by praying for a gift of belief. Also prepare for next weeks topic on “having an eye of faith”.)
Is unbelief willful rebellion? (See 4 Nephi 1:38)
“If a man has not faith enough to do one thing, he may have faith to do another: if he cannot remove a mountain, he may heal the sick.” Joseph Smith, HC, Vol. 5, p. 355
I think in this last quote the prophet isn’t strictly speaking on faith (which is absolutely necessary), but directly speaking to belief/unbelief. A person may believe that others like the brother of Jared or Enoch can move a mountain, but possibly not themselves. That is unbelief. Yet they may have belief enough to bless someone to be healed or to cast out devils which seemingly take less belief because the scale of them is smaller.
It’s very reminiscent of that scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Luke is on Yoda’s world of Dagobah. He’s levitated some rocks and now failed to raise his X-wing fighter out of the swamp. He turns to Yoda and says, “You want the impossible.” With that, Yoda raises the starfighter. “I can’t believe it,” says Luke. “That is why you fail,” Yoda replies. Unbelief.
1) Highlight every instance of “unbelief” in the scriptures to draw your attention to those words. This is easy to do in your collection note. In your browser, press ctrl/cmd-F to do a find. Type unbelief, and all instances will highlight (you may have to click “Highlight All” in Firefox to light all of them up). Then go down the list and double click each of them and highlight them.
2) Perform a search for:
Heart* and (hard* or soft*)
(Featured image – Bowie15 @123rf.com)
(For scripture study tips and techniques, click the link.)