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Nancy looked sober as she asked the question that burdened her soul. “How can I increase my testimony? I know many things to be true—but there are many principles of the gospel about which I have not received a witness.”
Often when she asks a question, the answer is clear and immediate. It was not this time.
I wrestled and wondered.
Nancy has had a lifetime of spiritual experiences. She does not doubt any part of the restored gospel. But she has not necessarily gone through the doctrinal punch list getting specific spiritual check off for every latter-day tenet.
Is that what is expected?
Getting a testimony
Often, we approach testimony in a systematic way. We study a doctrine, check it against scripture, consider its plausibility, and ask for affirmation. We must set aside our stubborn demand for proof and full knowledge. We must have a suspension of self-will and disbelief if we are to grow faith and spiritual knowledge. As we do this, we are rewarded with heavenly aha’s. The doctrine begins to swell within us, enlarge our souls, enlighten our understandings, and becomes delicious to us (See Alma 32).
As we study and test the doctrines, we begin to get a sneaking suspicion that it might all be true. We could continue to test each doctrine—each of the thousands—but God might have something else in mind. With a testimony of many truths, maybe He wants us to move on to the next stage of spiritual development.
Perhaps this moving on is like doing an inspection on a new home that we are about to buy. We begin by checking construction details very carefully. But, time after time, everything is in order. Everywhere you look you find excellent craftsmanship and top-quality materials. After a while we decide that we do not need to check every inch of molding or every clothes rod. This builder clearly knows what he is doing.
To make the obvious application to spiritual development, once we have a sense that His plan is consistently remarkable, we do not need to test every single doctrine. Knowing that His work is perfect, we begin to trust Him.
The next step
This seems like the answer to Nancy’s question. Rather than work her way systematically down the punch list of truths, God is inviting her to move from testimony to relationship: to come to Him, to come to know Him personally, to become His friend. He yearns for that. He never stops inviting her and each of us.
So, on the far side of testimony, we build heavenly relationship. When in relationship, we feel swallowed up by His love and engulfed by His goodness. As Lehi said, “the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell, I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.”
When we are in relationship, we do not challenge each doctrine or directive from Him, requiring evidence of truth. Neither do we insist that we must gain a specific testimony of each line item of doctrine in order to validate our belief. Instead, we respond to Him as the most trusted of friends. We believe His words and follow His counsel.
Trust may be the fundamental rule of relationship. As we come to know His faithfulness, we become more peaceful, happier, and more spiritually mature.
“But I still make so many mistakes!”
Most of us struggle with the nagging sense that we are not doing enough. We worry that we aren’t studying the scriptures enough, praying enough, living nobly enough, and serving well enough. We feel that we are under a spiritual storm cloud.
Of course, we’re right; we don’t do enough. But the relationship paradigm should change the way we think about such things.
For example, one of my dearest friends is a fellow named Greg. I only see him every few years. I do not send him a weekly or even a monthly update. I don’t even remember to send an occasional e-mail. Yet, when we see each other, we embrace as brothers. There is no warm-up period, no excuse-making, and no re-earning of trust. We spend the hours we have together in laughing, sharing, and rejoicing. We are in relationship.
Perhaps this relationship has lessons for our relationships with God. If we have truly built a relationship with Him, our bond is stable. He does not disown us during seasons of imbalance when we spend less time in methodical scripture study.
Staying in touch
Yet, on the flip side of the argument, this relationship can be more than a friendship in both its blessings and its demands. It can be as intimate as a marriage. When I travel for the university, I normally call or write Nancy every day or two. If my schedule is unusually frantic, I may not find a time to call—but I never forget her. To be out-of-touch for long periods could be very damaging to an intimate relationship.
So, in the first stage of spiritual development, we study the scriptures and pray in order to get to know the mind of God. As we move to an intimate relationship, we study and pray not to prove our commitment but to stay in touch. We study and pray for the same reasons we write our spouse and read messages from our spouse. We yearn to stay in touch with our best friend.
The same applies to our relationship with God. We do not fret about Him forgetting us. This is the point God seems to be making when He tells us that we are written in the palms of His hands. He is no more likely to forget us than a mother will forget her cherished newborn (Isaiah 49:16).
The parent-child metaphor is a fitting one. He loves us. He has committed all the resources of heaven and earth to help us grow. When we, like a pouting 5-year-old, threaten to run away from home, He does not accuse us of ingratitude and throw us out. Rather, He stands and waits for us to come to our senses. In scriptural terms, He waits at the gate as He did for the prodigal. And He comes looking for every lamb that is lost from the flock.
In some sense all of us are prodigals. We have all run from our obligations. We all have squandered our time and talents in wasteful living. (Think of the time squandered in TV and video games!) Eventually the dull ache in our souls makes us long for something better. We think about our better lives with Father. When we have done nothing more than turn toward Home, He runs, falls on our necks, and kisses us. In giving us the robe, the ring, and the fatted calf, He declares that He wants to continue in relationship with us. In fact, He wants to formalize the relationship with covenants which are His incomparable way of putting us on notice: “You do your part, and the riches of eternity are yours. I promise. Because I want you home with Me.”
I suspect that the rules of relationship are somewhat different from those that govern testimony. We don’t study doctrine as the key process in creating a relationship. We study and pray in order to stay in touch with our Friend.
A side trip
Scholars of child development have observed that children learn different lessons from their experiences with their mothers and fathers. Mothers are often the nurturers and communicate in an intimate and verbal way. Fathers often communicate with their children nonverbally.
Dad comes home from work and strikes a come-and-hug-me pose or a let’s-wrestle pose. Kids learn to read those non-verbals. This is an important adjunct to all the lessons they learn from their mothers.
Maybe this is analogous to our relationship with our Heavenly Father. As our testimony and knowledge of Him grow, He enters our lives and strikes a come-and-hug-me pose. He invites us to move from knowing Him in our minds to feeling Him in our hearts, lives, and souls. He invites us into His arms.
As we study the gospel and gain a testimony, we get a mighty change of meaning. Everything takes on new significance when we understand His plan and purposes.
As we run to Him and bask in His embrace, we get a mighty change of heart. We want to be better. We hate sin more and more. We yearn for holiness. We want something higher and nobler than our fallenness.
I think that is what the sacrament is all about. He meets us at the “throne of grace” where He offers to haul off all the rubbish in our lives. In return for trusting Him with our lives, He lends us His own perfection. He lends us His goodness.
So, we come to church not as much to learn or affirm some gospel truth as to meet Him at the throne of grace for the heavenly embrace. He hauls off our soddenness and leaves us clean and shiny.
He really loves us. He wants to be in relationship with us.
The next step
Maybe the stage of relationship prepares us for the next step in our spiritual development: partnership. After all, God has asked for our mind, heart, might and strength. Many of us submit our mind first through the testimony process. Then we offer our heart as we enter a relationship. As our souls are changed by that relationship, we offer more and more of our energy. We become partners with Him in the remarkable work of blessing His children.
This stage is accessed when we turn our lives over completely to Him. We become consecrated. Our prayers no longer have the begging quality to them: “Please do this or change that.” We stop trying to change His mind. Our mind and will becomes aligned with His.
Ironically, at this stage of complete submission, our prayers may actually be more authoritative than in earlier stages. The person in partnership with God may pray, “Father, help me to use Thy power to bless Thy children.” Since the person has no will but God’s will, He may be able to command and be obeyed. Enoch, meek Enoch, was authorized to command the elements in the name of God. “He spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command” (Moses 7:13).
Partnership is where we work with Him in perfect harmony to advance His perfect purposes. At this level of progression, He is preparing us to partner with Him in eternity.
Testimony is the start. Relationship comes next. Then we seek for partnership. His plan is a beautifully progressive plan to make us more like Him. Somewhere in this process, He moves from calling us “servants” to calling us “fellow servants” and ultimately to calling us “friends.”
Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. (John 15:15, see also D&C 84:77, 93:45).
Invitation: If you are interested in reading about building a relationship with God and your spouse, you might want to read Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, available at Amazon.