What is a Testimony?

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Ironically, some of you with “strong testimonies” may think that those struggling with their testimony make only a small percentage of us here today. The converse is also true; many of you who are “struggling” yourselves may believe that you are the only one in the ward that thinks or feels what you do or that there are only a few of you at best. The truth, however, is that most of us, if not all of us, are struggling to some degree—(admittedly, some more than others). For although many of us stand at this pulpit once a month and testify of things that we “know,” for most of us these things are merely things that we have accepted and in which we have practiced faith successfully.  Today’s post is from guest blogger Matt Lorenzen.
This topic became very dear to me as a young missionary. I found myself in the MTC, surrounded by Elders, all of us on our way to Sweden. I felt that I had just as strong of testimony as anyone of them. However, I learned after a few short weeks that some of these Elders had based their testimonies on something that was altogether foreign to me. Some of them, upon seeking a testimony in their youth, had partaken of something that I, somewhat irreverently refer to as a “hair-whitening experience.” In other words, they had experienced something in a specific moment that made their testimonies sure and undeniable. A few of them even described a psychosomatic experience, in other words a burning of the bosom if you will. I began to wonder if my testimony was insufficient. I became more and more sensitive to comments by my teachers and others, speaking of obtaining a “witness” through the Holy Ghost, and being able to realize Moroni’s promise. I became convinced that a real testimony needed to be obtained through some miraculous “hair-whitening experience” at my bedside. So, I prayed morning noon and night for this experience to come, so I could be a real missionary, and have a real testimony. After discouraging weeks in the MTC and even months in Sweden I became somewhat disillusioned, disappointed, and even cynical because God had failed me. To abbreviate the story, I will tell you that on my mission, and after, I was eventually able to understand more clearly the nature of what testimony is, and where it comes from.

I wish to speak to those in a similar situation to me on my mission. This could be a youth seeking a first testimony, hoping to realize Moroni’s promise at their bedside. It could even be a prospective missionary hoping to do the same. It could be a life-long member seeking a renewal or reassurance of testimony.

I also want to speak to others struggling with testimony in a very different way. I believe some of us here, while believing we had a strongly rooted testimony in the restored gospel, have encountered things that may have challenged that testimony This could come in many forms: a realization of the imperfections of the prophets and apostles (past and present), or, on a related note, a run-in with some fragment of church history that just does not seem to sit well with you, or any number of other reasons that lead us to a point of confusion or frustration and a difficulty to believe as fervently as you once had.

Finally I wish to speak to the members of the church as a whole—assuming that all of us are continually seeking to define, defend, and renew our testimonies.

First, to those seeking a first testimony or renewal/confirmation of testimony: I wish to share a couple anecdotal stories that illustrate the dangerous expectation that we as individuals and as a church sometime have: the expectation to obtain our “witness” by some miraculous means. The first given by Orson Scott Card, a well-known LDS columnist.

Years ago, two young women we knew went on a temple trip. A temple official addressed the whole group, saying, “At this temple, we are keeping records of the spiritual experiences people have while doing temple work. When you’re through, we’ll give you paper so you can write down yours.”

The two girls had opposite responses. Girl A — let’s call her Agnes — felt a thrill of excitement. As she went down into the water and performed baptisms for the dead, she kept watching her own emotions — and in the process she found herself having stronger and stronger feelings, until she was convinced that she had had a great spiritual experience. So Agnes wrote it down with all the fervency of youth.

Girl B — Betsy — felt a great dread. What if she didn’t feel anything? What if she was the only one who had nothing to write about? And, indeed, while she felt good about taking part in the sacred ordinances, she had no great rush of feeling, no sign from God, no special connection with the other side.

Afterward, when everyone else (or so it seemed to her) was furiously writing, Betsy was miserably disappointed in herself for not measuring up.

Both of these girls were cheated out of the real temple experience by the false expectation — the demand, really — that they have and share a “spiritual experience.”

My second story comes from Elder Godoy as he recounts in General Conference an experience he had when visiting a ward in Brazil.

A few years ago, when I was serving as an Area Seventy in Brazil, my family and I were on vacation in the beautiful city of Florianópolis. On Sunday, as usual, we went to the closest church that we could find. My wife and I and our oldest daughter attended a Sunday School class where they were discussing our personal testimony of the gospel.

At some point in the lesson, the teacher asked the class members if they would share a powerful spiritual experience they had while developing their testimony of the Church. While some brothers and sisters were sharing their stories, I mentally reviewed my own experiences as a convert for something I could share with them, but I could not think of anything very remarkable in my process of gaining a testimony.

While I was thinking and listening to the others’ experiences, I realized that the teacher expected me to participate. She was listening to the other members, and she let me know that she was waiting for my great experience to be shared. After all, I was an Area Seventy, and I should have something impressive to share. Feeling that the time was passing and she was waiting for me, I tried harder to find something that would fit in this category of a powerful event, but I was not able to think of anything, to the disappointment of the teacher. For all I wanted to help, I could not meet her expectation.

Both of these stories focus on the point I wish to make here. Often times we as a church, and as a culture, focus on the importance of obtaining a witness to the truthfulness of the church. We often do so using such language as “a burning of the bosom” or other well-known Mormon phrases. We hear about people that experience a proverbial Pentecost at their bedside. We do this often times, to the exclusion of the stories that tend to be more common in the church: obtaining a witness through everyday experiences that nevertheless tell us in our mind and in our hearts that the gospel is true, godly, and good. To those struggling in faith because you have not had a “profound spiritual experience” rest assured that your testimony is no less valid than someone who has. You belong to a sometimes silent majority in the church to which General Authorities belong.

Elder Godoy of the Seventy concluded his story (the part that follows the foregoing excerpt) by saying that his testimony was not based on one irrefutable event either, but the sum total of many experiences that led him to believe that the seed was “GOOD.”

This word, “Good,” leads me to my next topic and audience: those who have been shaken in their testimony.

Some of you, like me, me have encountered things that have made you scratch your head and wonder a bit from time to time about the “truthfulness” of the gospel or the restored gospel.

Here I need to pause and question just what exactly we mean when we say “truth, or truthfulness.” We are often taught that the church is true or false, black or white, right or wrong, miraculous or a fraud. While I hold these statements in large part to be true, I also believe that this view of the gospel can be destructive for some. Viewing the gospel, the church, and its leaders in such a binary fashion can be disastrous. It leads many, including myself for a time, to believe that if the history of the gospel, the church, and its leaders is not blemish-free, then the logical conclusion is that it is altogether false. As a matter of fact, I know people who have left the church based on this premise.

I wish now to return to the word, “Good.” If you find yourself questioning the truth of the gospel because the church and its leaders do not have a perfect history, I encourage you to find strength and encouragement from this fact, not discouragement and a lack of faith. I believe that the reason why so many of us are so bothered by blemishes, is because we believe in the church so strongly, and we care so much about it… not that we care to little and wish to discard it. We would do well to remember a few things.

I can sum them up in an old adage: While the Catholics say the Pope is infallible, none of them believe it. And while the Mormons say the Prophet IS fallible, no one believes it. Do not be discouraged that we are lead and have been lead by imperfect men. While they are prophets and apostles, and I do not mean to minimize that fact, they are men—just as we are men. We are all walking through the lone and dreary world whether we want to believe it or not–you and me, and the prophets and apostles. We, just as the apostles and prophets, have been separated from our God and must seek daily to discern between truth and error, to hear His voice and discern between it, our own wills and desires, and those of the world. It was Paul, the great apostle himself, who said when addressing the Corinthians that he “saw through a glass darkly.” I think it presumptuous to assume anything different concerning our modern day apostles.

To conclude my thoughts on the word “GOOD,” that Alma and Elder Godoy use, I mean to say that GOOD means neither perfect nor infallible. If calling the church, an institution, by the adjective true, seems odd to you, especially because we recognize that we as individuals and as a church are a work in progress, imperfect and fallible, then you are not alone. What an odd usage of the word! To mean it’s like calling a ham sandwich true. It just doesn’t mean anything… unless of course we understand that when we say true, we mean Good, or “of God,” etc. And I do think that is what we mean when we say “the church is true.” So, to those of you struggling due to encountering history that challenges your testimony of the church or of its leaders, remember that above all else, you know that the church is GOOD, and that it as well as all of us are a work in progress.

Finally, I wish to address all of you as individuals that are just like me: seeking to define, defend, and renew my testimony. I believe all of you, whether you have experienced any of the aforementioned feelings or not, will one day experience some sort of discomfort as you explore the foundations of your former, current, and future faith. But discomfort is a good thing, it means we are thinking, feeling, evaluating, readjusting, redefining, in sum developing our understanding of God and Man. And so far as I have understood it correctly, that is the very meaning of life.

Wendy Ulrich, a PhD, focusing on religious and specifically Mormon psychology, describes our relationship with God in much the same terms as she would any long-term relationship, even a marriage.

The first of these stages is a honeymoon stage of blinding idealism, in which we delight in our new partner and are sure that the problems faced by other couples, other parents, other believers will not bother us. We are in love, full of hope, enthusiastic about our new relationship. We relish being loved and cherished, but even more we relish being someone who is easily loving and good. We are sure we have found a wonderful spouse, child, church, relationship with God, and we are also sure that this will last. We finally know how to be in a relationship, or how to get answers to prayers, or how to be part of a community. We are happy, sure that little problems that come up will be readily resolved. This stage lasts weeks and sometimes years, but it intermittently gives way to the second stage of committed relationships, the power struggle.

As the power struggle gradually takes over more and more of the relationship we begin to wrestle for control. We may try any of a number of old or new tactics to try to coerce, cajole, reason, manipulate, blackmail, convince, bribe, punish, or flatter our partner in the relationship into changing to give us what we want, whether what we want is a spouse who does the laundry or a God who explains Himself to our satisfaction. While some of these tactics may work with spouses or children or parents, they do not work with God. He invites us to change instead, and this is often very painful. We want the world back the way it was when we were innocent and full of hope and before we had discovered the snakes in the grass, but He evicts us from the garden and tells us to keep walking. Much of our behavior is about trying to get safe, and much of His is about trying to help us see that our safety lies in our submission to and trust in Him despite pain and struggle, not in our freedom from physical or emotional discomfort. We keep thinking that there are answers and solutions to all difficulties if we can just get someone else to see our point of view and give us what we know we need. And that someone else keeps holding out on us, keeping us guessing as to what to try next. We are sure that if we could just change them we could get things back to the honeymoon, not realizing that this is not only impossible, but unhelpful.

The third stage of committed relationships, which usually comes after years of vacillating between lingering idealism and the increasing futility of the power struggle, is withdrawal. At this stage we essentially give up, although we may not leave. We resign ourselves to not really getting what we want, not really changing the other party, and not really being happy. We are tired of fighting, but we can’t recoup our lost idealism. We go through the motions of relationship but we are frustrated and we feel more or less betrayed and misunderstood. This period of withdrawal allows us to regain some independence, pursue other sources of satisfaction, and develop other talents and interests. If we are lucky we begin to work on ourselves–whom we can change–instead of working on our partner whom we cannot change. With the Church or with God, this means we begin to face that there are some questions we will not get answered, some differences that will not be worked out, some losses that will not be prevented. This is a risky stage, a stage when some people decide there is nothing to hold onto because they are no longer in love (stage 1) and no longer have hope for change (stage 2). But as we continue to work on ourselves, see reality more clearly, and resolve our own issues we have a chance of moving toward stage 4.

The fourth and final stage of committed relationships is about renewal. Not exactly a renewal of the honeymoon, but a more mature, realistic, and truly loving renewal. We come to accept our spouse or our parents or the Church, and we come to accept ourselves. We allow God to run the universe, and we become more content to let go of things we cannot change. A deeper, more mature love begins to emerge, with fewer power struggles and less disengagement. We do not need to see all the answers, and we do not need perfection by our standards in order to not be embarrassed or ashamed of our Church, our partner, or our God. We reinvest in the relationship, not because we have decided to risk yet one more time that we will not get hurt only to have the rug pulled out yet one more time from under us, but because we have learned that hurt can be survived, that this is a risk worth taking, and that it does not mean we cannot be happy or that we are irrational suckers or that we are doomed to failure because we take another chance on trust or because we fail or are failed again. We see ourselves and our partner more realistically, and we do not run from either vision. We recognize that we can be hurt by being betrayed or we can be hurt by not trusting, but we don’t get the no-hurt choice because there isn’t one, at least not until we simply choose not to read betrayal into every ecclesiastical failure, or abandonment into every unanswered prayer.

I encourage all of you, to continue developing your relationship with God. To not avoid those moments of disillusionment and frustration that come with a growth in knowledge, but to confront them, embrace them, and learn from them. Learn more about yourself, and learn more about God. Indeed, realize that your testimony is a process.

To those struggling with doctrines or moments in church history, again anchor yourself in what you know to be good, and I do believe that you know the church is good, or else you would not be here today. Be comforted that God does not expect perfection of anyone, not you, nor the leaders of the church, but he does expect that we all move in the right direction and follow another admonition of Paul, to “cleave to that which is good.”

To those struggling to find a first testimony or those seeking to renew it through prayer, continue to pray. While God may not visit you with angels in the night, or even a physical feeling or burning, he will hear you and reveal truth to you in the way that he knows will benefit you most. For some that may be an angel, or a feeling, but certainly not for all.

My testimony, like yours, is very much so a work in progress. I even hesitate today to say that “I know” certain things. But I am comfortable in saying that my faith is that God is there, that Jesus Christ lived and died for us, and that God has revealed much for our good through ancient and modern day prophets, and that he will reveal much to us individually if we seek him out and say as Samuel did, “Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.”… “Hear” of course being used figuratively.

Comments 10

  1. Even with a hair whitening testimony your faith can be tested. Like as unworthy as I am why me and not someone born in the church? Someone that has been on a mission? The big shocker is finding out not everyone has the same gifts. Then you really feel unworthy. Just remember when satin messes with you the most; you are probably doing OK.

  2. Great talk Matt!

    I have only two words to say: I love it! Oh wait, that’s three. I have only three words to say about this talk: Everyone should read it! Uh, that’s four I guess. Four words to describe this talk are “I couldn’t say it better.” Five words … not four … hmmmm. Ok then.

    I’m outta here. Time to get my work done so I can go home and get some sleep.

    Great talk!

  3. Matt–I enjoyed reading your post.

    It appears to me there is great variety in the kinds of experiences the Lord gives church members that influence the kind of testimony they possesses. I think many church members are born with a testimony, and like a fish that discovers water last, they live and breath a testimony but are not fully aware of what a great blessing they have until circumstances reveal it.

    My experience with testimony has taught me that testimonies, of the irrefutable variety, come when we encounter a crisis.

  4. Actually, the withdrawal stage describes my situation fairly well. I’m not absent (FAR from it, in fact) but I am certainly withdrawn. I’m scared of what absence might lead to, and the little bit of hope that keeps persisting makes me hang around.

  5. You deal with two of the most important facets of testimony (at least in my 30-year experience).

    Everyone has a unique way of receiving and expressing their testimony. We have different weaknesses, different strengths, and different things challenge or build our faith/testimony.

    Our testimonies are like living things. They need to be nourished and replenished. As you say, it is a work in progress. Those “hair-whitening” experiences lead me to think of the likes of Laman and Lemuel. More than once they had experiences that would have turned other people around in a hurry (like Paul or Alma Jr.). Even the most powerful experiences will not last if we don’t keep up struggling for testimony. Satan does mess with us – he is subtle and insinuates his ideas into our thoughts (the most common are fear and doubt. While doubt is obviously not sinful, but a very natural thing, we shouldn’t let our doubts get the better of us. Same with fear. Remember the lessons about how bravery is not the absence of fear, but of facing our fears and overcoming them.

    Then there’s the question of what it means that the gospel that we teach in the LSD Church is “true”. To me it’s meant different things, but right now I would say that it means that we a)have the Priesthood keys and b)even if we don’t know everything or have an unblemished history (or even present), the word is “good”, as you say.

    Some of my questions will have to wait to be answered, and I’ve learned to live with that.

  6. May I observe that the “hair-whitening experiences”, when they come, generally occur when one’s self has been lost in the service of the Lord, and not when we request them.

    May I also observe that one very quite effective path to a deep spiritual experience is to slowly and prayerfully read the Book of Mormon, keeping in mind Moroni’s exhortation in chapter 10.

    Miracles happen every day. Most active, alert members of the Church encounter at least one or two a year, but we do not always recognize them.

  7. Miracles happen every second.

    Every breath that we draw is a miracle. It is a miracle that this planet has an atmosphere of the correct molecules in the correct proportions which is held in place by the correct amount of gravity. It is a miracle that our bodies are created in such a manner that we have lungs that expand and contract to draw in this breath. and that the oxygen can interact with our blood in such a way as to bring life to our organs.

    It is a miracle that any of us can read and understand these small marks on a computer screen and comprehend meanings that they represent.

    Next time we breathe perhaps we could consider it a hair whitening experience.

    The church is good. The church is entrusted the power and authority of God which he has restored through imperfect, humble men. It is the path to the Savior and He is the way, the truth and the life. He who gives us breath also gives us eternal life. These things I know.

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