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I have five sons, so I’ve had lots of practice writing missionary letters on all sorts of subjects. Almost without fail, each boy has experienced a crisis of testimony at the beginning of his mission. What could a parents say when their son or daughter feels the gap between where his/her testimony is and where it needs to be?
To write this article, I reviewed past letters in an effort to address common doubts and fears that afflict many of us who have desires to serve.
Questions vs. Doubts
Before his mission, a son became troubled over a doctrine that he could not square with his secular education. Now doubts flooded his mind, rendering him spiritually paralyzed.
I responded, “Satan utilizes disobedience and false teachings or ideas to cause a breach in our souls through which light hemorrhages. Then he enters through the gash and drains us of truth: And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers.’[i]
“One of Satan’s tricks is to transform our questions into doubts. Whereas questions are healthy and the vehicle by which we progress, doubts retard progress and bring us to a standstill-even to regression. If we are not careful, Satan will turn our questions into doubts; then our testimony begins to topple.
“How does Satan manage this slight-of-hand? One strategy is to convince us to focus on a single issue and give it excessive weight. Because the human mind can only think one thought at a time, he convinces us that a certain issue is the one that should occupy our attention. If we buy into his temptation, the issue will eventually cause us to discount everything else. We will begin to view that issue as though we were looking at it through a magnifying glass. Satan will use the troubling matter as a trigger, and every time we bump up against it, he will shout in our ears falsehoods and lies. We can expect this strategy to be automatic.”
“Over time, it will appear larger and larger, and soon it will overshadow all else that we once believed to be true. At such times, we must regroup and remember what we know to be true and to review what evidence we have. Then things will come back into perspective, and we can give proper weight to the troubling issue. With persistence, the subject will return to what it should be–a question rather than a doubt.”
When Red is the Only Color You See
“Another Satanic strategy is to get us to see everything through a filter. For example, if we are troubled with the color red, Satan will urge us to focus on all the red things in our environment to the exclusion of all other colors. Never mind that trees have lovely green leaves, blue birds wing above us and white-capped mountains glisten with crystalline snow–red is the only color we see.
“Satan is skilled at employing this strategy. Are we not amazed that within a couple of years, he had talked the majority of the Nephites out of remembering the experience of the night that appeared as day when the Savior was born? The event that had once caused them to collapse to the ground in astonishment was now dismissed as a phenomenon of nature:
And it came to pass that from this time forth there began to be lyings sent forth among the people, by Satan, to harden their hearts, to the intent that they might not believe in those signs and wonders which they had seen….and the people began to forget those signs and wonders which they had heard, and began to be less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts, and blind in their minds, and began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen–Imagining up some vain thing in their hearts, that it was wrought by men and by the power of the devil, to lead away and deceive the hearts of the people; and thus did Satan get possession of the hearts of the people again, insomuch that he did blind their eyes and lead them away to believe that the doctrine of Christ was a foolish and a vain thing.[ii]
“As disconcerting as some issues may seem, they are really not as large as Satan would portray them to be. Nevertheless, we often allow these issues to carry much more weight than they deserve.
“Beyond all other considerations, we must never discount our testimonies and the evidence we have of God’s miracles in our lives. We must never allow our questions to set at risk what we value most: our eternal relationships and the promises of salvation and exaltation that gospel covenants provide.”
The Leaven of Satan and the Leaven of Christ
Another missionary son was working with a less-active member of the Church, who had become offended by a doctrine that ran counter to her interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. She couldn’t understand why temple worthiness would hinge “such a little thing as decaffeinated coffee.”
Of course, the issue had nothing to do with the various blends of coffee or teas or colas; rather, the issue was one of obedience. If the Lord chose to test us by abstaining from bread, we ought to obey without analyzing to death his reasoning. I wrote this response:
“We recall that Jesus cautioned his apostles to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.[iii] Leaven, of course, is another word for yeast, the ingredient that makes bread rise. Jesus was cautioning his disciples against allowing the words of the Pharisees to be planted in their souls. What starts as a little thing can soon expand to overwhelm its host. Such is the leaven of Satan.
“Many people bump up against a difficult doctrine or a disturbing piece of historical data and they falter. Others have chosen to become been offended by a Church leader or a ward member then they succumb to Satan’s advances and allow him to introduce his leaven. Over time, that leaven expands until questions become insurmountable doubts and offenses become felonies, then those people who are troubled by these things begin interpret everything about the Church through the dark filter of Satan’s lie.
“Like cancer, the leaven of Satan will take root in the soul and grow into a briary tangle that is calculated to destroy us. According to Nephi, to avoid implantation we must give no heed to any temptation, no matter how insignificant it might seem. We must neither dabble nor consider nor partake. In Nephi’s words, we heeded them not.’[iv]
“The only solution to rid Satan’s leaven from our souls is an infusion of light and truth coupled with divine intervention, typically through the priesthood.
Of ourselves, we are simply not strong enough to take on the power of Satan and come off conquerors.
“On the other hand, Alma speaks of leaven in another way. The word of God, he says, is like a seed. Like the evil leaven of the Pharisees, the good seed is also planted by an external force-the Holy Ghost. Over time, if the seed and its growing motions are not resisted or cast out by our unbelief, the seed will grow into “the tree of life…springing up unto eternal life.”[v] If we will nourish that good seed, Alma says, it will begin to swell then sprout and eventually grow into a bearing delicious fruit.[vi]
“Once the seed or leaven of Christ takes hold in the fertile ground of our receptive soul, the Father will direct the growth, oversee our education, and teach us the sublime intricacies of the gospel and its covenants. Moreover, he will give us power to abide the precepts of the gospel covenants.[vii] Over time, the good seed will grow and become a part of us until we are totally leavened by it.
“Soon, we will discover that the fruit of the gospel that grows from the seed tastes delicious; it is desirable to make one happy; it is most sweet above all other fruit; it is white to exceed all whiteness; and it is the most joyous to the soul. We will have no desire to depart from it.[viii] As we become Zionlike by the leavening power of the word of God, we will feel no urge to be drawn back to the great and spacious building-Babylon. The word of God simply tastes better, looks better and feels better than anything Babylon has to offer.”
A Challenged Testimony
Another son entered the mission field and immediately sensed the gap between the level of his testimony and where it needed to be. He was troubled, but I was thrilled. “You are experiencing the Holy Ghost urging you forward,” I wrote. “If you allow this feeling to work for you rather than against you, you will become a powerful servant of God with a magnificent testimony.”
I don’t think he heard me because his subsequent letters became increasingly doubtful. He was continually comparing his testimony with others, and the object of his prayers was centered on his gaining a greater testimony. In fact, by his own admission, he seldom prayed about anything else. His letters were filled with self-doubt and regret for not solving this issue before he arrived in his mission.
We carried on a correspondence for several weeks until one day his letter arrived and contained absolutely no reference to his investigators or the work; it was mostly about his doubts and fears. My wife and I looked at each other nervously and discussed the options; no time to lose, she assigned me to write him a paper letter to be sent immediately. Here are some excerpts:
“Mom and I read your letter today and had some thoughts about your ongoing struggle with doubts. The issue became really clear to us what has been going on, so Mom assigned me to stay up late tonight and try to give you some help. We are united in what we are feeling and what we want you to hear. Please take this in the spirit of love, because that is what is intended.
“Here is the short answer: You are listening to the wrong voice. The enemy of your soul has managed to twist your desire to try hard into a constant string of distracting thoughts that center on you. Consequently, you are analyzing all your thoughts to see if you have a testimony.
“Why do you give Satan an audience? I hope you see what is happening. You are spending too much of your time thinking about yourself rather than thinking about the Lord’s children. As evidence, in your last letter you mentioned nothing about your investigators, but you spent most of the letter talking about your problems and doubts. That is a huge success for Satan. The last thing he wants you to think about is the people. He just wants you to concentrate on yourself. I know this sounds harsh, but our intention is to deliver this message in the spirit of love and rescue. You simply cannot go on like this without serious consequences.
“Do you have a testimony? Of course you do! Is it as strong as it needs to be? Of course not. It never will be as long as you live, but it will continually increase. How? Not by analyzing it to death. Testimonies don’t grow on your knees; testimonies grow by giving them away, and by loving service. You have to bear a testimony and bless someone’s life if you want your testimony to grow.
“You recently told us about giving a priesthood blessing to a woman and experiencing a powerful spiritual confirmation. You’ve experienced that same spirit as you read and applied the Book of Mormon. You felt it when you gave your farewell talk; you experienced it when you read Alma 32; and you have written home about other spiritual experiences. Connect the dots. How many confirmations do you need? If these interactions with the Spirit are not testimony, what are they?
“I have a suggestion: Stop thinking about your testimony and your questions and doubts, and just go to work. Get up every morning and ask Heavenly Father, Whom can I bless today?’ Stop asking him to increase your testimony. That will happen automatically as you give yourself to his children. In fact, don’t ask for anything for yourself. No more thinking about yourself! For the next twenty-two months, think and pray about the Lord’s children. Period. That is why you are on a mission-for them, not for yourself.
“Now, you are not the only one who has started off his mission with questions and doubts. Here is something I read about President Hinckley:
As a new missionary serving in Preston, England, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley was facing a major trial in his life. He was sick when he arrived in the mission field, and he quickly became discouraged because of the opposition to the missionary work. At a time of deep frustration, Elder Hinckley wrote in a letter to his father that he felt he was wasting his time and his father’s money. A little while later, Elder Hinckley received a reply from his dad. It said, “Dear Gordon, I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion: forget yourself and go to work.”
Earlier that morning during scripture study, Elder Hinckley had read in the Bible, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35).
With my father’s letter in hand, I went into our bedroom in the house at 15 Wadham Road, where we lived, and got on my knees and made a pledge with the Lord. I covenanted that I would try to forget myself and lose myself in His service”
“So Mom and I are writing to you like President Hinckley’s father wrote to this young man who would become a prophet: Forget yourself and go to work.
‘ Otherwise, you are going to be hounded relentlessly by Satan and have a miserable mission.
“Let me tell you something else about testimonies that few people understand: They have everything to do with love and very little to do with obtaining spiritual information. Every time the Spirit speaks to you through a feeling, impression, voice or dream, it is as though Heavenly Father is saying, I love you…and by the way, the gospel is true.’ If you can’t see the relationship in the spiritual communication, you have missed the point entirely.
“Love is why God answers you. Love is why He pays attention to you and points you in the right direction. God is not a librarian doling out answers to questions. God is love. When He takes the time to send you a little love note, He is telling you how He feels about you. Love is everything when it comes to spiritual communication.
“How should you respond when God or anyone offers you affection? Obviously, by giving affection in return. How do you do that? The scriptures have the answer. After Jesus was resurrected, he appeared to Peter and the apostles. He asked Peter three times if Peter loved him, and the proof that Jesus required was Feed my sheep.’ That is what Jesus would say to you: Do you love me? If so, feed my sheep.’
“If you will respond and feed the Lord’s sheep, you will lose your self-absorbed life and find your charity-filled life in the service to others. You won’t mind getting up early and working hard all day. You won’t get discouraged with the sacrifice or count the days until your mission is over. You won’t miss your family and friends and former life. You won’t think about yourself at all. You will just think about whom you can bless today, and that will be the object of your prayers, thoughts and actions.
“I hope you don’t think we are being hard on you. We are just trying to save you from an enemy who wants to bind you down with self-centered thoughts and to keep you from doing the work that you were called to do. Don’t let him into your life. Fight back by doing the opposite: Stop thinking about yourself and give yourself totally to God’s children, who need your full attention. Bear your testimony boldly; teach with conviction; act decisively in the power and authority of your office and priesthood.
“As you give away what you have, it will return to you with increase. Pray to be led to the searching soul. Pray to bless lives. Don’t include yourself in your prayers. Be a servant and give yourself totally to feeding the Lord’s sheep, then watch as Satan flees and your testimony explodes in growth. I promise it will.
“Go forth and serve. Bless lives. Stand up in the power of the priesthood as an authorized servant of Almighty God and bear the testimony that you presently have of the reality of the Savior and his glorious gospel that has been restored in these latter-days. Help his children escape the chains of Satan and claim the unparalleled blessings of eternal marriage and family. The people in your mission deserve your full attention, effort and prayers. “Forget yourself and go to work.”
“We love you!
“Love, Dad and Mom”
In one way or another, the leaven of Satan or God will be implanted within us. It is unavoidable. So we have a choice to make: Which leaven will we allow to be placed in our souls? Both leavens have the power to expand and fill us. Both have the capacity to transform us into their likeness. If we entertain the dangerous leaven, it will soon swell and appear logical and essential; we will most certainly dismiss the truth as a myth. But if we will allow the leaven of God to swell within us, it will grow into the image of the Bread of Life.
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JimApril 19, 2013
The leaven that Christ referred to in Matthew 16:12 is false doctrine. We should always verify what we are taught (in GC, teaching manuals, and wards) in the light of the His Word. This will prevent people from following and worshipping a false god. If it not based on the scripture, then quickly extract this leaven of Satan before it gains traction in you.
My3rdestateApril 18, 2013
Everyone with any serious spiritual experience has almost been sifted several times. The secret is in the management of perception--matched against our own learning experiences. And the injection of the Spirit which quickens our mind. It is sometimes not given readily. I spent some time a few years ago examining closely the writings of Marvin J. Ashton. I think he understood these things as well/better than most.