Co-authored with Barbara Keil
Latter-day Saints understand that developing testimony is more than a one-time experience.
An investigator friend expressed her confusion about testimony: “Everyone seems to talk about a testimony as if it is something concrete—something that everyone understands in the same way. It’s not that clear to me. How would I experience a testimony? Is it the same for everyone? And people also seem to imply you either have it or you don’t. So is it something I receive in a one-time experience? Or is it an evolving understanding?”
Good questions. How do we develop and deepen our testimonies? How does God communicate with us to provide us with truth?
A few weeks ago, as I was sitting in a class for training volunteer Institute teachers I found myself considering the concept of testimonies. A new model came to me. It seemed like there might be three dimensions to testimony.
We talk about the first dimension a lot. The assurance we feel in our souls may be the element of testimony we discuss the most. This makes us unusual in the Christian world. Many traditions teach their adherents not to trust feelings. They argue that we can too easily be deceived by feelings.
LDS are very different. We believe in trusting feelings—as long as they are those that edify. (See D&C 50:23-4) This is a remarkable departure from most of our Christian friends. Rather than mistrust all feelings, we are to discount only the negative ones. This focus is consistent with scripture since, among the premier gifts of the Spirit, are love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:24). Those certainly sound like they have an affective component!
When I was a missionary in Jacksonville, Florida I once ushered people at stake conference. I was standing at the back of the chapel looking to the front when the stake president, President Vorwaller and Elder Howard W. Hunter entered the chapel through the side door. I stood glued to my spot and stared at an apostle. As I did, I felt as if someone had removed the top of my head and poured warm water into me. It was a unique–and life-changing–experience. I knew that Howard W. Hunter was called of God.
Still, feelings of assurance are very subjective. They are also personal. My overwhelming feeling of assurance does not entail any obligations for belief on you. Personal assurance is personal revelation. It is scripture—but only to me. My revelations cannot make demands on your belief and behavior–unless I have legitimate stewardship over you. Even then, you have the right to your own assurance rather than being expected to act on mine.
Assurances are also wildly varied: some people report feeling warm. Some express clarity of thought. Some describe peace. Apparently God customizes His messages for our preferences. (See 2 Nephi 31:3)
Assurance is also surprising in its variability over time. While I may be engulfed by God and His goodness this morning, I may be feeling desolate, lonely, confused, and uncertain by this evening. Sometimes the reason is obvious. Maybe we are assaulted by a gospel idea we don’t understand. Maybe worldly concerns have crowded out heavenly assurances. Sometimes the reason may be more obscure. Maybe we are just tired, discouraged, and vulnerable to darkness. It is not surprising that light waxes and wanes in a fallen world.
It seems that God wants us to make our decisions based on the best light we’ve ever experienced rather than in our temporary darkness. We don’t take counsel from fears and darkness, we cleave to the light—even when that light is accessed through memory.
Testimony is also based on knowledge. We believe that “it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6). The narrower meaning of this passage is that we cannot be saved without knowing Christ. It surely has a broader application as well.
When a Primary child bears testimony, someone who is cynical might wonder whether the child is merely swept along by social norms and peer sentiment. Yet, at what point do we consider that our knowledge is sufficient to justify saying that we know? Can a new convert who has merely heard the basic missionary discussions or a little child who is first learning the elementary aspects of the Gospel truly testify that he or she knows?
This may be a case where our knowledge and assurance can ascend together one step at a time. The Spirit can and does testify to the little child and the new convert. Both can claim, along with the rest of us, that they know truth. And then for all of us, assurance can climb right alongside knowledge. The more we learn about the fullness of the Gospel, the more our testimony has an opportunity to deepen. Line upon line, precept upon precept.
A friend told of his mission president who gave powerful testimony of Joseph Smith and the Restoration. The missionaries were awed by their president’s certitude. They imagined that there was virtually no veil between him and the eternal worlds. It came as a shock to the friend that, years later at a missionary reunion, the same mission president said, “I thought I knew that Joseph was God’s own prophet. Now I really know!”
Increased knowledge opens whole new vistas for assurance. For example, I have recently read several scholarly books on the history of Christian doctrine. I have been amazed by the tortured and awful process that often created the doctrines that mainline Christianity reveres. After completing one of the books, I found myself amazed at the magnificence of the LDS message. We believe that doctrine is not settled by debate, bribery, and violence but rather by the age-old process of revelations delivered by God’s chosen messengers. I realized—yet again—how amazing the message of the Restoration is! Do any of us glimpse the magnificence of the message? Do we realize the power of the Truth?
I find it harder to describe the third dimension of testimony. Some might say that it is right living. Right living matters. “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).
But it is more than obedience. Sometimes we are tempted to view obedience as simply accomplishing a checklist of do’s and don’ts. Or sometimes we may mistakenly treat obedience as a human way of extorting blessings from God; we imagine that we can force God to bless us because we follow the rules. But, if our goodness is obedience for the sake of reward, rather than from the heart, it is like clothes we wear rather than the flesh and bones of who we are.
Certainly as we begin our journey of faith we are obedient simply for the sake of obedience. As we commit to testing God’s precepts by acting upon them, we see the blessings in our lives. And our faith grows.
But the third dimension of testimony goes beyond obedience. It is more like relationship. There should come a time in every believer’s life when he or she knows and loves God. Loves Him more than he or she loves any other person on the face of the earth. As our love for Him grows, so does our yearning to be in constant relationship with Him.
We continually seek His presence. Our strongest desire is to search out and live His will for us. Over time we see how we are changed and blessed by that relationship.
The experiences we have of knowing God and seeing Him work in our lives enlarges our testimonies. Over the years and decades, we sense that God is setting us right, mending our souls, refining our hearts. We feel increasingly peaceful and assured. We know that God is not only able to do His work but is magnificently and consistently doing it.
Customized Messages from God
Last year I had the opportunity to hear Sheri Dew speak to a group of Young Single Adults in our region. She shared the story of a time when she had a life decision to make and was having difficulty figuring out the best choice. She called a friend and requested a Priesthood blessing. The friend asked her what impressions she had received related to the decision. She told him that she was struggling to tell what thoughts were coming from her own head and what thoughts might be coming from the Lord.
The friend made a suggestion: “Have you ever asked the Lord to teach you what it is like for you to get information from Him? What does it feel like for you? What language and vocabulary does He use with you? Have you asked Him these questions so that you can learn to recognize what it is like when He is speaking to you? Ask him to teach you His language for you so that you can understand His voice a little more clearly and a little more quickly.”
It is indeed useful to consider the ways in which God customizes his communication to each of us to provide us with personal revelation and testimony. He will use more than one method of communication. In some cases He will provide us with forms of assurances. In other cases He will assist us in gaining insight and knowledge. And as we love Him and seek to follow Him, He will offer us invitations towards further growth. We will progressively sense that He is doing His work in us.
Revelation Upon Revelation
Recently a group of us spent a day at one of the state parks in the mountains of Arkansas. On the way home we drove by Subiaco Abbey, home to an order of Benedictine monks. Visitors are welcome and we decided to tour the facility. The abbey church was beautiful. It was large with lofty ceilings, statues and stained glass windows high on the walls. As we were surveying the cathedral, I found myself reflecting on the contrast between the message of the cathedral and the message of LDS Temples. It seemed to me that the cathedral, like many cathedrals, was designed to give humans a sense of smallness and distance from God in order to inspire a sense of awe. I found myself feeling grateful for the temple which clearly and directly invites us to draw closer to God through covenants so that we can be enfolded in His embrace. Joseph Smith “took Heaven and earth and made them shake hands” as Brigham Young observed (Leonard Arrington, American Moses, p. 57). The Restoration opens the heavens even as it elevates our earthly experience.
I am grateful for all the moments of connection with God in which He gave me the foundation of testimony and then continued to build upon that foundation.
A testimony is not one dimensional. It is not something we simply “have” or “do not have”. Gaining a testimony is not a one-time event that occurs when we first accept the truthfulness of the Gospel. God is willing to provide us with continual and deepening insight, revelation and testimony if we seek them.
“If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal” (D&C 42:61).
We should remember and honor our first experiences of being filled with light and truth. We ought to remember and rejoice in the countless experiences provided by the Lord over our lifetimes that have served as further witnesses of His truth and His presence in our lives.
We must never allow the disappointments or uncertainties that afflict every mortal life to rob us of the testimony we have been given. We should not take counsel from times of darkness or doubt. Each day we should seek out and celebrate light, truth, and life as sweet and sacred gifts.
“Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken” (Jacob 4:6).
You may be interested in Brother Goddard’s books such as Soft-Spoken Parenting, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, and Between Parent and Child. For more information about his books and programs, visit www.FamilyCollege.com