It’s been a while since I was asked to speak in church. That was corrected yesterday, when I spoke for 20 minutes to the Bangor congregation. As usual, here are my remarks from the day. I was given this talk by President Thomas S Monson to use for the basis.
In his final general conference remarks, President Monson noted “We live in a time of great trouble and wickedness. A strong testimony of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of His gospel will help see us through to safety.”
What does a testimony look like? I think sometimes we like to add trappings to the things we say and do, hoping perhaps to impress people with our scintillating thoughts and observations. But at its core, a testimony doesn’t need to be anything deep or profound. It’s a statement of our beliefs, with perhaps an explanation of why we believe them.
Nothing brings this home faster than when you lose your ability to add all the trimmings and flourishes you might be used to using when bearing your testimony. If you ask any missionary who’s been forced to preach in a new language, I almost guarantee they’ll talk of how much they relied on their core testimony for at least the first few months. Simple heartfelt statements can mean so much more than fancy multisyllabic observations on everyday life.
Then again, I used to dread testimony meeting on my mission. Not because I was worried about getting up to bear my own, but because I never knew what I could expect for my investigators. True story. One Sunday in Leipzig, Germany I had an investigator finally show up for a church service and, naturally, it was Testimony meeting. He spoke only English, and I translated the meeting for him as it unfolded. One member got up and spoke for literally fifteen minutes about his trip to Greece, with hardly any mention of the Gospel or his beliefs to be found anywhere. Early on in my mission, that might have left me in despair. But I’d been out for almost a year at that point, and I’d learned a thing or two. When you’re the one providing the translation, you have a fair bit of leeway in how you interpret what’s spoken. Let’s just say that while the member went into great detail about Grecian ruins and beaches, somehow in the translation process he ended up talking about Joseph Smith’s first vision and the other basics of the first discussion.
So let’s talk about testimonies. I think there are three basic questions to ask around the subject. How do you get one? How do you give one? And how do you keep one? If any of us can master those three elements, we should be set for whatever troubles lie ahead.
I’ve heard people make a big deal out of knowing things instead of just believing them. I can understand why they want to make the distinction. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma describes how faith can mature over time, starting as nothing more than the desire to believe and ultimately culminating in a perfect knowledge. I can’t speak for everyone. Perhaps there are many people out there who truly have reached that perfect knowledge of all things stage. But personally, I have a long way to go before I’m even in the same zip code as a perfect knowledge. I’m kind of grateful for that, actually. Once you’ve got a perfect knowledge of things, there’s a whole lot more you’re responsible for.
As I’ve watched my children over the years, I’ve seen them always want the same thing: to be grown up. I wanted the same thing when I was younger. Grownups got to do all the fun things. They got to stay up late, drive cars, watch whatever they wanted on television, and eat as much dessert as they felt like. What wasn’t to like? My grandparents had a cabin in the mountains of Utah, and the extended family would go up there for all the holidays. In the basement of the cabin was an object that was the central envy of all the kids. The bumper pool table. An eight sided octagon that could provide hours of entertainment. The catch? You had to be twelve years old to use it.
I wanted to be twelve so badly, but actually becoming twelve takes years of hard work and effort.
In the same manner, I would love to have a perfect knowledge of the Gospel. To understand it so well that it all made sense. To never have my faith shaken. But the path Alma describes takes years for most people to navigate. Likely more than their lifetime.
It would be easier, perhaps, to just tell people “I know” the Gospel is true, but for me, it wouldn’t be accurate. I believe it, and I make sure to keep that distinction in mind. Why?
I read an article this week in LDS Living on how you can navigate a crisis of faith. Not because I was going through one personally at the moment, but I have in the past, and I’ve seen friends and family struggle with the same. I’m always up for getting extra advice ahead of time when and where I can. The article starts off as follows:
“For many people who undergo a faith crisis of profound proportions, their whole world comes crashing down because that world had been built on the truthfulness of the Church and the structure that the Church provided in their lives. Given that they spent years testifying, “I know the Church is true,” and given that they now no longer believe that declaration, they call into question everything they ever knew.”
Having faith is often a struggle, mainly because there seem to be so many different things that can crop up to test that faith. You know what else I struggle with? Brownies. If you’ve heard me speak before, you’ll know that brownies and I get along far too well. Add a bit of ice cream and a gratuitous banana or two, and I can’t seem to resist them.
Actually, I have a problem with sugar in general. A year or two ago, I came to a startling realization. I was addicted to sugar. This seemed like a ridiculous concept at first. Addicts were people who compulsively consumed their weakness, continually going back to it, even to their own detriment. They were people who couldn’t physically stop their actions. Sure, I had sugar now and then, but addicted?
Then I thought of how often I ate sugar. An ice cream sundae every night. Snickers bars for snacks throughout the day. Baked goods as often as I could get them. (A definite perk to working in the library field.) And the continual trouble I had with my weight. Could it all come down to sugar?
The nail in the coffin for me was how much I rejected the idea of giving up sugar the moment I had the thought. Not because I thought it was a bad idea, but because I thought it would be very, very hard. In the end, I didn’t like the thought that I was so hooked on anything, so I made the commitment to go without sugar for six weeks. It was difficult. I was cranky, particularly for the first two weeks, but in the end, I got through it.
These days I have reintroduced sugar into my diet, but I swear off it from time to time, just to keep that addiction in check. One thing I’ve learned about myself in the process, however. I am very good at following rules I set for myself, right up until I break the first one.
No sugar? I can do it. As long as I defend the fortifications around that commitment, I can stay true to my decision. But the moment I ease off? When I decide to sneak a few chocolate chips? It’s as if I let the enemy right through my barricades. Next thing you know, I’m back to eating brownies by the mouthful.
I believe this principle extends beyond sugar and brownies. I’ve seen it at work in testimonies as well. We build our fortifications around seemingly random lines. “I know” can be a fortification for some. They cling to that knowledge, insisting its existence, even when it might get wobbly. But because the fortifications are focused around that “knowledge vs. belief” point, if the knowledge gets too shaky, suddenly there’s a breach, and the enemy can do some real damage.
So I’m not one to pile sandbags around things that aren’t a certainty for me. Again, maybe it’s different for you. I can only speak for myself. One spot where I have many years of fortifications built up is in the same concepts discussed by Alma earlier in that chapter.
28 Now, we will compare the word unto a aseed. Now, if ye give place, that a bseed may be planted in your cheart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your dunbelief, 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, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to eenlighten my funderstanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.
31 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own alikeness.
32 Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.
33 And now, behold, 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.
34 And now, behold, is your aknowledge bperfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your cfaith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your dmind doth begin to expand.
I know the gospel is good. I know its teachings have brought me happiness as I have followed them. There are parts of the gospel I don’t understand. Reasons for actions that don’t make sense to me. I have built my fortifications accordingly. I acknowledge those gaps, but my testimony does not rest on their explanation.
So how do you give a testimony? Is there a right way or a wrong way? Is it just sort of a monthly open mic in the chapel? Over my years as a member, I’ve seen any number of testimonies given. I’ve seen some that have been incredibly flowery and complex. I’ve seen some that have been nothing more than a few sentences. I’ve seen people bring props up. I’ve seen people come to the stand to simply ask if someone in the ward might mow their lawn. I’ve seen people stand to thank their family for something in particular. I’ve seen people come up to call the rest of the ward to repentance for perceived slights.
In other words, yes. There is a right and a wrong way to bear a testimony. It’s not an open invitation to address the ward or get the word out about an issue close to your heart. It’s not the chance to give the talk you wish the Bishopric would assign you. It’s an opportunity to publically share what you believe and why.
First, let me say that if you only get up and say what you believe, that’s fine. For many, speaking in public can be frightening, and holding onto an idea once you’re staring out at a hundred other faces can be almost impossible. Sharing what you believe publically strengthens your belief. But I do think most testimonies that only list off beliefs are a missed opportunity for both the bearer and the audience.
One of my friends from high school decided to attend a Mormon service one Sunday. I’d invited her to come and find out for herself what it was like, but I hadn’t counted on her going by herself. I’d wanted to accompany her and explain what was happening.
As luck would have it, she went on the first Sunday in a month, and so she attended a Fast and Testimony meeting. In the end, she left confused and unimpressed. She told me that once the singing and Sacrament were over, she’d heard from one of the men up front, who talked about what he believed and why. That part was interesting to her. But from there, she said it was a series of people getting up to talk about what was happening in their lives. They expressed thanks for their families and their jobs. They’d tell long stories that didn’t really seem to connect with anything having to do with religion. Almost all of them would get around to listing off the things they believed, but they would leave it at that.
I’m not trying to say these testimonies were misguided or inappropriate. I wasn’t there, after all, so it would be impossible for me to offer an opinion. But I do know that for my friend, an outsider to the religion, they were missing an essential piece. Why. Why did all those people believe what they did? What experiences had they been through that led them to those beliefs?
I believe the Book of Mormon is true. That statement is a testimony in its most basic form. Me saying it might do something for me, but it’s less likely to do something for people hearing it, because they can’t connect with it. But it also is quite close to just simply stating an opinion. It would be like me saying I believe Batman is the best superhero of all time. Hey–you could even add in the word “know” in that statement. I know Batman is the best superhero of all time. If I dropped that sentence in the middle of a conversation with some of my fellow comic book nerds, they would demand an explanation, no matter how self-evident I might think the statement to be.
I’m an academic librarian by trade, and I teach many students how to find information and incorporate that information into a research paper. Often when I’m introducing the topic to freshmen, I’ll compare a research paper to building a house. You can build a house out of whatever you want. The three little pigs proved that well enough. When you do research, you collate materials you want to build with. It’s up to you which you choose. You can just use the first materials you happen to come across that more or less fit the bill of what you need, or you can take time examining those materials, selecting just the right ones to ensure the final structure is as sound as possible.
In the end, you write a research paper to present your ideas and arguments to others. If you’ve done your job right, then you make a compelling case. You’re believable.
Sooner or later, we will all come into contact with people who will doubt what we believe. In my experience, we’ll also come into contact with events and thoughts that will make us doubt our beliefs. In those times of trouble, it is not enough to simply state “I believe the church is true.” Knowing why we believe what we believe is even more important.
As President Monson noted, “It is essential for you to have your own testimony in these difficult times, for the testimonies of others will carry you only so far. However, once obtained, a testimony needs to be kept vital and alive through continued obedience to the commandments of God and through daily prayer and scripture study.”
We receive a testimony by putting the Gospel into action. Someone could come to me right now and try to argue the church’s teachings have harmed me. Such an argument would be easy for me to dismiss. I know they have helped me, because I have countless firsthand experiences with the blessings the Gospel has brought me. I’ve had discussions with friends about the power of prayer, and whether it can be effective or not. Again, this is an area where I feel I can say I know prayer works. I’ve done it so often and received answers and support in response that it’s no longer in question.
I’ve discussed how we get and share a testimony. So how do we keep one?
I believe the Book of Mormon is true. I’m frankly too skeptical by nature to be willing to upgrade that to a certain “know” still, even after almost forty years of experience with it. That said, our testimonies don’t have to answer every objection that might arise. In a General Conference address in 1975, President Ezra Taft Benson, then the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, noted, “We are not obligated to answer every objection. Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand. “And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye,” said Nephi, “for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things.” (2 Ne. 33:11.) Every man must judge for himself, knowing God will hold him accountable.”
Sooner or later, it is true that the reason all of us believe is because we have made a choice. We have placed our trust in feelings, which is something many in the world view with skepticism today. This is something that has never quite made sense to me, however. There are many different things in the world where we must rely on feelings, love being the first and foremost.
When I was dating, I chose who to date not by listing off a series of facts. I chose by feelings. When I asked Denisa to marry me, it wasn’t because it made logical sense. In fact, up until then, I’d been terrified of marriage. My parents had divorced when I was young, and that left a lasting impression on me. I had always said I wanted to know a girl for at least a year before I even thought about proposing. And then I wanted a long engagement.
Don’t tell my kids, please, but I proposed to Denisa less than two months after our first date. We eloped to the Manti Temple less than four months later.
None of that would have made sense to the part of me that demands logic and sound reasoning. But it’s been the single best decision I’ve ever made, and I’ll happily defend it to anyone who might try to argue the point. But I don’t think anyone would. Isn’t that curious? Society is fine when we follow our feelings in love, but when we extend that guidance to other areas of our life, our motivations may come under fire.
A testimony is something that develops over time, typically. It’s an accumulation of experiences. Answers to prayers. Reading scriptures. Receiving guidances from the Holy Ghost. Discovering over time what happens when you obey the commandments and what happens when you don’t.
In the twentieth chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
It’s a parable that has stumped me for a while, because it’s never made a whole lot of sense to me. I’ve read various talks and explanations by apostles and prophets, but I could never quite get over the unjust feeling of it all. Some of the laborers had gone the whole day, working for twelve hours, and they were paid the exact same as the ones who had just worked one? Where are labor laws when you need them?
But this week, in the middle of a spiritual thought during one of the meetings I attend, something occurred to me. This parable only seems unjust if you assume the laboring is like any other job. Something difficult and to be endured, so that at the end of the day you can get a reward. But Christ was describing the kingdom of heaven and what membership in that kingdom is like.
Remember, God’s plan for us is a plan of happiness. The Gospel is here to help us deal with the struggles of life and be happier. In the parable, it occurred to me that the ones who labored the entire day had been blessed by being in the kingdom that entire time. They had its guidance and reassurance. Its support and assistance. The ones who came in at the eleventh hour had to struggle the entire day without that same help.
The labor isn’t the hard stuff you have to endure in the Gospel. The labor is the reward. The laws and ordinances bless us, even while they may feel burdensome from time to time. We don’t endure to the end so that once this life is over, we can all go and do the things we wish we could have done the whole time we were living. It’s not like at the end of all this, we get to kick back with a glass of wine and a nice cigar while we do nothing but eat chocolate pudding and binge watch Netflix for the rest of eternity.
We’ll continue doing the things the Gospel teaches us here. Raising families. Keeping the Commandments. Preaching the Gospel. Bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
Remember my three questions? How do you get, give, and keep a testimony? Two of them have the same answer. You get and keep a lasting testimony by actively living the Gospel. It’s the only way I know how. You give a testimony by telling other people your beliefs, ideally explaining the reason you have those beliefs. The experiences you’ve gone through that led you to them.
I pray all of us can keep our testimonies if we have them, get one if we don’t, and share them with others when we do. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.