Sunday, January 18, 2009

Testimony as a Process

Never, never, never begin your talk with a definition; it's boring and makes people zone out. I read this very recently from a very reliable source, several sources actually. But this isn't actually a talk. It's a buffed up, rearranged, blog version of my talk. Did they say never, never, never begin your post with a definition? Nope. So let's start with a definition. Elder Dallin H. Oaks in General Conference April 2008 gave an excellent one:
A testimony of the gospel is a personal witness borne to our souls by the Holy Ghost that certain facts of eternal significance are true and that we know them to be true. Such facts include the nature of the Godhead and our relationship to its three members, the effectiveness of the Atonement, and the reality of the Restoration.
I frequently hear testimonies being compared to plants (seeds, fruit, etc) or to children. Both need nurturing, but just as no two plants, no two children, develop identically, or even have the same needs, the process each person goes through to gain a testimony is unique.

In October 2008, Elder Carlos Gadoys shared an experience he had in Sunday school while he was visiting as a member of the quorum of the seventy. The teacher asked class members to share significant experiences that they had as they formed their testimonies. As everybody related their experiences, he got the feeling that she was expecting him to share his experience. (I must admit that if a Seventy came to my classroom I'd expect the same.) And so he searched his memory banks and searched and searched and was unable to come up with any major experience that had led to the development of his testimony. That was not his conversion experience. Later that day during Sacrament Meeting he gave his more sedately acquired testimony of the truth of the gospel and of the restoration, and of the reality of God, of our Savior. He adds "Sometimes we think that to have a testimony of the Church, we need some great, powerful experience, or a single event which would erase any doubts that we have received an answer or a confirmation."

Do we need to see an angel, feel a huge fire in our bosom, or be knocked to the ground in order to know for sure that God is real, that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was a prophet? It happens to some people, but those one-time memorable experiences are relatively rare, perhaps not even that useful. Elder Gadoy states that a huge spiritual experience doesn’t necessarily result in faith, pointing to Laman and Lemuel in the Book of Mormon as prime examples. They saw an angel, but the moment the angel was out of their sight the excuses began. No lasting faith resulted from their big experience.

Contrast Alma the younger. He was born a member and was taught by the gospel clearly by his parents and at church (or whatever worked for church for them at that time) and then chose not to follow it and in fact chose to fight against it. His father, as we all know, prayed and prayed for his son to have an undeniable experience, and Alma did receive a memorable angelic visit.
“And as I said unto you, as [Alma and the sons of Mosiah] were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood; And so great was their astonishment, that they fell to the earth” Mosiah 27: 11-12
The angel then delivered his message: Stop trying to destroy the church. It’s God's church. Don't mess with it. It’s not that different from the vision that Laman and Lemuel saw. The difference is the choice Alma made afterward. He believed, but not just because of the angel and not just magically out of the blue. He sought the truth.

As he preached among the Nephites, he explained the process he used to learn if his beliefs were true. In Alma 5: 45-47 we read,
Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself? Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety?
How does he know? How does he have a testimony? He's about to tell us.
Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.
Fasting and prayer. Those were the tools he used, not just briefly, but many days. The product of using those tools? Spiritual knowledge revealed through the Holy Ghost.

The Book of Mormon doesn't just leave Alma's experiences at that. He dedicated his life to helping people gain testimony. In addition to teaching the Nephites, Alma also went on a mission to the apostate Zoramites. One of the most extended plant analogies we have comes from this portion of his ministry.  He’s teaching people who are not likely to get an angelic visitation (like most of humanity) yet he affirms that they can know with a surety. How? Let's go find out. His sermon is recorded in Alma 32:26-272
Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge. [Notice we cannot know immediately with perfect knowledge.] But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. (Alma 32: 26-27)
He moves into his analogy.
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed...
Let's pretend. You have two peas, one out of a seed packet, the other from a can of peas. You plant those seeds. One of them is a good seed, very likely to grow. Not by itself, true. Still the other seed is guaranteed not to grow. There are seeds that WON’T grow no matter how well we care for them, seeds that are dead, seeds that aren’t true seeds. OK, back to Alma.
...if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, 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 enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
Not a perfect knowledge of everything, not yet.  We must care for the plant our seed brought forth so that we can have fruit, a perfect knowledge of truth, leading to eternal life. 

I have some personal experience in plant care. I love to garden. When it’s cool I’m good with planting and weeding and so forth, but then when it's hot I don’t always get out there and water’s hot out there. As a result my plants tend to do the shrivel thing. Not good, but not the poor seeds' fault. Interestingly, my son J has a different method. He plants and weeds, but also waters. It is amazing how much more fruit he got out of his garden than I got out of mine last year. 

So it is with a testimony. As we continue to care for the knowledge we have and seek more knowledge, it grows. It's not instantaneous. We don’t plant our seeds one day and have a nice bowl of split pea soup on our table the next. It doesn’t go that way. There’s a lot of nurturing that happens. It’s a process.

I asked friends for their thoughts on a testimony. Let me share a truly beautiful thought from one friend. She hadn't always done the textbook things that are "required" for a testimony and she has felt guilty, that perhaps she didn’t even deserve a real testimony. Then she had an insight.
Simply when I live any part of the gospel in any way, shape, or form. I feel good and I feel love. That is my testimony. That the gospel of Christ and his love for us is the way. No matter on what scale (small or large) I live the gospel, I will always feel and know that.
She listed for some things that have contributed to her testimony. She said that when she reads  the Ensign she gets answers to her questions. When she prays she feels God’s love. When she reads the scriptures she feels the truth. When she goes to church and takes the sacrament she feels better. Little seeds developing into plants, finally bearing precious fruit.

As I studied the scriptures, conference talks and spoke to people about testimony, it became clear to me that the path to testimony is as individual as the human soul. The way that I received my knowledge and testimony is unlikely to be the way others receive theirs. Heavenly Father speaks to us through the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Ghost speaks to our spirits in many, many ways.

In Galatians 5:22 where Paul (who , by the way, had his own angel experience and then continued to live righteously) was writing to the Galatians and was talking about the fruit of the Spirit, a list of feelings we can feel when the Spirit is present. (Look, fruit! That whole plant analogy again.)
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love [When we pray we feel Heavenly Father’s love, love for each other.], joy [How many of us when we finally understood something that God has been trying to tell us through the scriptures or a talk have felt joy or been in the temple and have been filled with that peace and joy? Oh look peace that’s next!] peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance."
I would add the words of the Lord as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 46: 13-14. "To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful." Not everyone will see an angel, not everyone needs to. Burning in the bosom, peace and absolute surety, they aren't for everyone. Sometimes we just believe what someone else has seen. 

My experience hasn't been much like Alma's or Paul's, probably not even much like yours. And that's OK, better than OK; it's what I need. God loves me and communicates to me in a way I can understand.  God loves you too; He will reveal truth to you so that you can understand. Yes,"in his own time and in his own way, and according to his own will", but rest assured that God will teach you the things you seek to know in the language of your soul. This I know.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


Jami said...

Could this be ANY longer?

April said...

It was great! Thanks for the lesson! I needed it today.

Heidi Ashworth said...

I was here but I can't read all of this tonight--my family kind of insisted on my attention today. How selfish, huh? But, I want to give this my full attention, not be distracted with the full glass of chocolate milk spilled on the big guy's mattress or other such demanding things. ergh! Adieu until tomorrow morning!

Jami said...

Thanks, April.

Heidi, I totally understand. 2,029. That's my word count. I had no idea what I was committing to when I said I'd post it.

Heidi Ashworth said...

Wow! I hope your ward appreciates the treasure they have in you. I was just reading on a blog yesterday about how we sorta kinda do fit under the definition of a cult (she isn't anti, just unsure of what it all meant). I disagreed, stating that the difference is that we have a true testimony of the truthfulness of things that are true and it is that very difference that leads us to live the gospel, not some charismatic leader. We just wouldn't do what we do and not do what it is we don't do without that testimony of our very own.

Melanie J said...

The language of our souls. I really like that. This was so well laid out. Sometimes for me, my entire testimony is rooted in the part of Alma where he encourage us by saying that if we even have a desire to believe, and that's all we have, that we should let that work within us until it swells to something more. More often than I wish, I feel like all I have is a desire to believe but if I give it time and keep praying, eventually it grows again into something strong.

Great talk. Thanks for sharing.

The Crash Test Dummy said...

Ooooh, this is beautiful. You should publish it in the Ensign or something. High Five. And you're right about never never never never opening your talk with a definition. That's what I tell my students about their research papers anyway.

Jo said...

I like the emphasis on the process. I think we wish it would just come a package, no assembly required. Good reminder, LOTS of assembly required!

Youngblood4ever said...

Way to be totally inspiring. You and Heidi and all of my blogworld friends are such wonderful examples. Thanks for sharing this.

Youngblood4ever said...

Oh, and since you didn't post this until Sunday my hubby had already written his talk so I didn't have to "borrow" your talk for him. Plus, I am pretty sure if he had read yours he would have been totally caught in the act of "borrowing."

Jami said...

I'm so impressed you guys made it through. Thank you for your kind words.

Crash, it's too casual and long for the Ensign. But it's nice of you to suggest it. I had fun flaunting the wisdom of many far older than me, of many far wiser than me. Whenever someone says never, never, never, I SO want to do whatever has been forbidden. It's a horrible character flaw.

Shellie said...

Jami- I have to say I loved every minute of this. :)

I had to read this aloud to myself because I could tell it was going to be great and it really hits home if I can read things a loud for some reason.

The qoute from Dallin H. Oaks was perfect :) That started it off great.

and I never knew that Alma didn't just "believe" because he saw the angel. That he actually worked on it... fasted and prayed to continue on the knowledge he was given by the angel.

Thanks Jami. It was awesome!

Alison Wonderland said...

It's like sacrament meeting but without the cheerios. (I'm not sure I remember how to do that.)

The Crash Test Dummy said...

I have to do a fireside this Sunday. Can I borrow some of this? Or just lift the whole thing? he he

Papa D said...

Great talk - seriously, great talk.

Jami said...

Thank you, Ray.