Testifying

April 19, 2004 | 19 comments
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The question is how do we testify. I have come to feel that our formulaic “I know …”does not serve as well as we would hope. In a discussion, it stops the conversation. We are announcing that our belief is highly personal and therefore not subject to examination. The listener is likely to feel okay, you have your belief; I hope you enjoy it. He or she may even feel we protest too much. No one ever says “I know this table exists.” The opening “I know” may function like the word “undoubtedly;” it conveys the opposite of what it purportedly means.

An experience a few years back led me to believe another kind of testimony is more effective, but it is a kind of testimony we have not necessarily prepared ourselves to bear.

I was asked to teach a missionary preparation class to a group of high school seniors one summer. I spent nearly a month rehearsing them in how to explain the Book of Mormon–not an elaborate explanation, just a simple description of its nature. I told them that when school began I wanted them to invite their non-member friends to a Sunday brunch to try out their skills. They could tell the friends they were going on missions and wanted to experiment.

The Sunday came and two girls showed up. The boys did their job–quite miserably I must say–and then one extremely acute young woman asked, “what does this book mean to you personally.” She was less interested in what the book contained than how it had affected their lives. They were all tongue-tied, but I have never forgotten the question.

The question points to the kind of testifying we should be doing. How precisely does the Gospel affect our lives. I am not thinking of vague abstractions but what specifically do we value in the Church. A general, one-size-fits-all answer won’t do. We need something concrete and highly personal. We have to look at ourselves and ask what really makes a difference. Occasionally someone will ask why is it that we believe in Joseph Smith or the Church. We should have a convincing, genuine, personal answer ready to hand. The answer should be rooted in our personality and our autobiography. At its best it will include incident.

Sitting in the dark early one morning, three thoughts came to me as starters.
1. Elementary discipline. I am grateful I don’t have to fight against tobacco, alcohol, extra-marital sex. My Mormon upbringing excludes all those debilitating addictions.
2. Opening to the spiritual. We are taught to pray and seek inspiration. We are told to think of Christ in our everyday lives. These teachings have developed a side of my nature I might have otherwise overlooked. I feel in touch with powers beyond myself–and within myself.
3. A reality anchor. My natural frame of mind is skepticism, not simply about God but about every kind of reality. I am inclined to believe that every form of belief including mathematics or the stone we kick is socially constructed and not necessarily really real. The scriptures provide me with words I am ready to bet my life on.

One and two above are probably commonly shared. Number three and others I might name are more idiosyncratic. If I am ever called to the High Council I may organize a sacrament meeting around calling people from the congregation to name one concrete, personal thing they like about the church. I trust you will be ready when I come to your ward.

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19 Responses to Testifying

  1. lyle on April 19, 2004 at 11:44 pm

    Richard, I’ll volunteer my branch here in S. Philly. :)

    1. An explanation of how/why certain things feel true to me. When I was a child, I distinctly recall several occasions when I made a choice & then felt inside of me that it was the right choice. Like a key opening a lock. Later, I learned that this feeling was the Spirit…and I thought, “COOL!”.
    2. An explanation of how/why certain things feel familiar. Knowing that I lived as a spirit before gaining a body gives me hope & courage, that I am building on a foundation that I started before. The Pre-mortal existence is also crucial to me, because it was while reading about this Doctrine that my then Catholic, and soon to be, mother, as a college student, read about this & felt the Spirit & became a convert.
    3. Perhaps your #3 isn’t as idiosyncratic as you think Richard. After reading alot of post-modern, sociology & social constructivism…I was thrilled & drained by these concepts. The gospel gives meaning to my life & energy & reassurance…that I don’t have to give meaning to everything, that God loves me & has a plan for me & everyone.
    4. Humility. I like the humility that I receive via the Church. Learning the King Follett sermon is great…but learning to live like God is humbling & has given me greater empathy & a greater desire to serve others.
    5. Harmony. My mind & my feelings/heart…are constantly at war with each other. The gospel provides unity to me, helping all of “me” to come together & cooperate. The harmony & peace the Gospel brings to me far outweighs the negatives.

  2. Clark Goble on April 20, 2004 at 4:40 am

    I tend to agree. The words “I know X” have little power unless you *show* how it affects you. When communicating this its like what your English teacher used to tell you. Don’t tell me, show me…

    That’s probably why there is relatively little formal theology emphasized in the scriptures. Instead most of them are vague directives or stories showing how the gospel works in individual lives. Even prophecy is wrapped in grand archetypes and a kind of historical sweep. It all takes place in experience.

    That’s why I get so frustrated in many lessons or talks. Don’t just tell me things. *Show* it to me so I can grasp it. Indeed, I think that ideally what we know is far beyond what we can express in terms of descriptions. Our experiences far outstrip our ability to express them. So don’t try. Tell them in simplicity and let the Lord’s hand shine forth in them.

  3. Ben Huff on April 20, 2004 at 9:22 am

    I think you’re exactly right, Richard. And it fits very well with the modeling of testimony we get from our special witnesses of Christ in General Conference. “God lives, Jesus is our Savior, Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God” is a part of what they say, but as far as time spent talking goes, it is a minority. It serves as a kind of summary or epitome, but I think these epitomes draw their forcefulness primarily from the more concrete and personal testimony they summarize or epitomize, from their own lives and/or the lives of their fellow saints. Without the concrete support, the mere “I know”s are not very persuasive or illuminating.

    The dynamics of “I know” are really interesting. When we use it with people with whom we share the knowledge, it is personal, in a unifying way. But when we use it with people with whom we don’t share the knowledge, I think it often obstructs communication. It says, “I’m going to stand where I am, and if you want to come talk to me where I am, great, but I’m not going to come where you are, to meet you.” It tends to announce, “I’m saying X, but I’m not going to try to seriously explain to you why I believe this in a way you can understand. I’m just going to tell you I know it”. It is kind of a defensive way of speaking. It is highly personal, but in an isolating way. The other person doesn’t know, so the more firmly you announce that you know, the more it isolates you.

    We need to speak personally, but in a way that opens our lives up to others, in a way that invites them in. And when we talk about the very concrete impact of our faith and of the power of God in our lives, we invite people in, and make a space where they can invite or allow us into their lives.

    But testimony meeting culture is ambivalent about the bearing of very concretely personal testimony like this. More than once this year already in testimony meeting the person presiding has encouraged testifiers to stick to the core truths, tell us you know Joseph Smith is a prophet etc. and leave it at that!

    Why is that?
    Sometimes it’s just a way of encouraging people to be brief, since there are a lot of people who want to share their testimonies. But I think there’s more.
    I think I can understand why, given a lot of what comes over the mike during testimony meeting. Too often what people share is personal in a way that does not show very helpfully the influence of Christ in the person’s life (rambling stories that are *merely* personal, or dumb jokes) or that pushes me away (I don’t want to hear your sob story about how your beloved cat died), or that I don’t sympathize with, and shouldn’t be expected to (idiosyncratic beliefs expressed with “I know”).

    The challenge is to be personal, very concrete, etc., but in a way that truly illustrates the power of the gospel, and in a way that the listener will clearly recognize, and hopefully can relate to. And particularly to illustrate the power of the core of the gospel. This is something of a fine line to walk. It takes practice to do it well, even just as a manner of speaking. Plus to do it well you have to have accepted the gospel into your life in very concrete and intimate ways, and reflected on this acceptance, which many people have not. So the bar you’re setting, Richard, is pretty high. But of course that means it’s all the better to aim at.

  4. Ryan Bell on April 20, 2004 at 11:54 am

    Richard, thanks for this thought-provoking post. I admit I’m torn between your suggestion and our more awkward customary mode of testifying.

    On the one hand, I really believe that the more personal a testimony, the stronger will be the spiritual witness of its truthfulness to the hearer. This is borne out as I reflect on the testimonies borne in this discussion– they have power, and create excitement and interest. The more personal the witness, the more it hits home for the hearer.

    On the other hand, I worry that such an approach can be taken by the listener as merely an invitation to share his or her own feelings about his or her own religious beliefs. Please don’t think I’m saying that that kind of a discussion is unwanted, but in the moment when one wishes to testify with power to help a friend see the truthfulness of the gospel, an instant response of “that’s great, and you know what, I really feel that same way about my church. In fact, my beliefs have really helped me because…” can be counterproductive, to say the least.

    In other words, I think there’s a new tolerance for testimony in our culture, which is a very good thing with a very bad side effect. More and more, people are willing to listen to our testimonies, even engage us on these personal issues, but the flip side is that it’s never been easier to dismiss such witnesses in a sort of post-modern “that’s true for you,” kind of way.

    So many people have heard my testimony, agreed that it was true, and yet failed to conclude that that truth had any relevance to them in their lives. Our experiences are different, so our truths are different as well. They are tolerant of me and my views, and even excited for me that I’ve found something good for me, but their experiences have brought different understandings to them, which are equally true and good for them.

    Thus, I worry that making statements of why I love the church, or how it’s helped me, will sound to the ears of the modern-day hearer only as a statement of my contentment of having found something that’s good for me. And while I do think such affirmations may bring the spirit, I’m afraid that it leaves the hearer too easy an out. I agree that the “I know” mode has it’s problems, but at least it has the benefit of being solid, absolute, and universal, rather than something based only on my perspective. What is your experience with reactions to the two different types of witness?

  5. john fowles on April 20, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    Ryan, I very much agree with your take on this. I read Richard’s post with enthusiasm, but in the end came to the same conclusion as you. It is also a conclusion I came to as a missionary when we would discuss “building on common beliefs.” This is not the same exact issue, but it is closely related.

    What I noticed was that too many missionaries would spend all of their teaching time building on common beliefs like this. It made for very harmonious discussions with everyone nodding a lot and lots of glowing feelings. But the logical conclusion of such teaching experiences was a sort of anti-climactic “goodbye, I am glad to see that you believe the same things we do” and no reason to come back for another visit.

    I much preferred casually pointing out the differences between our beliefs during the course of a discussion to convey the idea that they needed to hear what we had to say–that they did NOT already and that it constituted truth that they might still acquire in their lives. That is why I found the Book of Mormon to be such a strong teaching tool, as the Church leadership has long stressed.

    Do not misunderstand me: this approach indeed has the potential to polarize a situation. But by testifying with “I know,” even if it tends to be a conversation stopper at some point, it plays into the natural polarization that occurs when people of two different beliefs discuss those beliefs directly. It creates a need, in my opinion, either to take a step towards understanding (in the missionary setting that would happen through reading the BoM and praying about it) or rejecting the message in favor of one’s own differing beliefs. That is the nature of our work in the harvest, when boiled down to its basics: we are asking people either to accept or reject our message as the wheat and the tares are separated. Luckily for those that reject the message initially, God works in the fourth dimension of time and the final separation of wheat and tares does not happen immediately. Thus, through God’s liberality to all his children, people get many opportunities to make their choice.

    And we are lucky as well that it is the nature of the restored gospel that we gather truth wherever we can find it. Thus, after pointing out the differences that make the gospel essential for those who do not yet have it, I believe that it is also appropriate to emphasize that people bring all of their truth with them into the Church, leaving none of it behind, if it is truth, and only abandoning beliefs, views, or cultural aspects that are inconsistent with the belief system–and the behavior system that it necessitates–of the restored gospel.

  6. Adam Greenwood on April 20, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    If I may trim my sail to both winds . . .

    Mssrs. Bell and Fowles have experience that parallells mine. Whenever I talk to people about the church in purely personal terms, they usually treat it as a warm opportunity to talk about their own church or group therapy ring or whatnot.

    On the other hand, ‘I know the Church is true’ is such an odd thing to leave hanging in the air. It’s so outside normal experience and language that it’s almost meaningless.

    Probably what’s really needed is a conversion story that invites your interlocutor to get inside your head and participate with you. I’ve just read an example in BYU magazine. It’s a devotional from last year, by a geologist named Kowallis.

  7. Tim on April 20, 2004 at 10:52 pm

    I’m a 28 year old LDS convert of about 4 years now from the Kirtland, Ohio area. Before embracing Mormonism, or todays definition of it anyway, I found a Book of Mormon at our local library and began to read. It rang true to me and soon I started to investigate the “Mormon Church.” After awhile, I realized it was not the “Mormon Church,” but the then RLDS church. I went down about 2 blocks from the RLDS Church and visited and studied with the “Restorationist” Church. Later, with the “Strangites” and “Bickertonites.” Then to the “Allreds” and “Harmstonites.” The list goes on. Finally I met with LDS missionaires. What was confusing to me, is that ALL of these various different “Book of Mormon believing” churches, stated the common “I know…” phrase. “I know that Joseph Smith III was a prophet of God.” “I know that James J. Strang was the true successor to Joseph Smith.” “I know that William Bickerton was called of God.” The kicker of it was, all of them, including the LDS, would look me square into the eyes and testify in the name of the Lord, “I know if you follow the instructions of Moroni 10:3-5, and ask God, just like in James 1:5, you will know that OUR church is true and that we have the Priesthood of God on earth.” Here I was, a 24 year old man, wondering what in the world I should do. Why did God tell some that James Strang was the successor and Brigham Young to others? If they all use the same formula of prayer, how can one be wrong? According to each group, the devil was telling the other groups their answers and giving them “false testimonies.” I think we put too much emphasis on “I know this Church…” Between the testimonies of members of the various different sects of the restoration and the testimonies that I would hear 4 year old kids repeat (as their mother whispered into their ear), how can some not be left with the same question Joseph Smith had: “What Church is right, if any at all?” Now, for many people that I know around this area, its not what “christian” church is true, but rather, what Book of Mormon beleiving church is true.

  8. john fowles on April 20, 2004 at 11:24 pm

    Good point Tim. I’m glad you found us, in the end. Tell me, what made the difference, then? Did you put Moroni 10 to the test? Did you perceive that the LDS Church had something different that the others did not have? I presume that if it had appeared exactly the same to you, or if it had seemed like a post-modern “whatever works for you” type of situation, then you wouldn’t have seen any reason to pick the LDS Church over the others.

    Also, having had that experience, how do you now testify to those not yet acquainted with the restored gospel?

    I guess that I wouldn’t always endorse a flat-out “I know” testimony. My main concern would be avoiding the post-modern difficulty inherent in the other extreme. Maybe, as Adam noted, an overlap exists b/n the two, or should exist.

  9. Jordan Fowles on April 20, 2004 at 11:41 pm

    You know, Adam, it’s conversion stories just like this that my friends from other Christian churches keep right on the tips of their tongues. They are much more interesting, much more persuasive, and I find- much more difficult to share because stopping a conversation by saying “I know…” can seem easier (I suspect) to a life-long member of the Church than pinpointing and describing a “conversion story”.

    I think we definitely need to focus more on conversion “moments” and telling the story around these.

  10. Tim on April 20, 2004 at 11:54 pm

    In the end, what really made the difference, was the LDS Church still practiced more of the teachings of Joseph Smith than any other of the various sects in Latter Day Saintism. After reading the “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” before becoming LDS, I received a tremendous personal spiritual witness the Joseph Smith was/is a prophet of God. The other churches I studied with, all had some sort of a “Fallen Prophet” story they attached to Joseph Smith. I suppose that many would not agree with my curriculum on how I joined the Church, but basically here it is: I believed and felt a witness that Joseph Smith was a Prophet. Never though of “The Church.” By deductive reasoning, the LDS Church still held to the original faith than any others, so that is why I initially joined. Kind of an Alma 32, plant the seed type of approach and see where it goes. I regret to say that our church does not practice all of the teachings of Joseph Smith either, but at least we have not branded him a “fallen prophet.”

  11. john fowles on April 21, 2004 at 12:04 am

    Thanks Tim. I personally think that that is a fantastic way to find the Church: a testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet is essential for membership in the Church.

    I also agree with Jordan (excited to see you this weekend BTW): we might settle for the “I know” type testimonies because it is easier than identifying a “conversion moment,” particularly for those of us raised in the Church. Of course, everyone needs to be converted at some point, even those raised in the Church, but for some of us, it is truly hard to relate a conversion story when the gospel seems simply to flow in the veins. I understand that will open up this comment to criticisms of complacency or blind obedience, etc., but I don’t mean it that way. I mean to say that it can be sincerely difficult to find a conversion story that will allow a non-member to get in our head, as Adam suggested might be necessary, for people whose testimony and conviction came one small step at a time from nursery to adulthood.

  12. Julie in Austin on April 21, 2004 at 12:13 am

    I keep thinking about something that happened at our ward conf. this week.

    The stake president called on a poor, unsuspecting recent ( 7 months) convert to come up and he asked him a few questions and asked him to bear his testimony.

    The guy said absolutely nothing that you haven’t heard before, nothing earthshaking, nothing profound.

    There were several people weeping openly by the time he finished.

    Why? The Spirit was so strongly confirming what he was saying. It was a powerful experience.

    I’m not sure what the formula is (if any) for ensuring that this happens when we bear testimony, but this did make me realize that the whole point of bearing testimony is not so much what we are saying, but that the Spirit is validating it.

  13. Tim on April 21, 2004 at 12:58 am

    I can relate to what you are saying Julie. I’ve witnessed the same type of thing in the many wards I’ve attended from Kirtland, Ohio, to BYU singles wards to where I am at now. However, while investigating the Church and other “split-offs” as we call them, I witnessed the same thing in those various groups and churches when it comes down to testimony meetings and such. I don’t mean to “run in circles” here with this observation of mine, or put any doubt on any person’s belief or convictions, but it truly is a mysterious thing to me. After hearing so many “I knows” in so many different organizations, I just personally refrain from participating in it. When I do get up in testimony meetings, I just tell how I feel and believe and that’s about it. I haven’t made any solid public delcarations in quite a long time. Elder Packer explains that a “testimony is found in bearing it.” I have yet to understand that one as well, so I pretty much just keep my feelings to myself.

  14. john fowles on April 21, 2004 at 2:10 am

    This was posted by Whiskas over on How Mormons Became White:

    Thanx for that link I enjoyed very much reading everyones comments, interesting though that everyone had different thoughts on the subject, even it seems, as commented on the thread, do your church leaders, yet no one has any hard and fast answers, so at the end of the day it all boils down to your own individual testimony that it is there for a reason, Gee thanx for your comments I enjoyed it greatly, again…no answers just a very good testimony of why you adhere to your word of wisdom, even though you youself can find no reason for abstaining from tea and coffee. So I guess its time for me to move on, as I have learned what I needed to know, and the posts on the Sons of Mosiah board gave me that message very strongly…you adhere to your beliefs because of faith that your leaders are right..cool…thats good enough…not for me as I said earlier on, there are so many things we could be directed on…fossil fueless cars so we dont destroy the ozone…which by the way is alreadt screwed…e numbers…additives…pesticedes, oh the list goes on, big macs, fast foods of all description. the biggest threat to our health at the moment is obesity brought on by all the fast food stuff, but hey, I stop now. you have your faith and I have mine, thanx for the ride. peace to you all.
    whiskas.x.

    I wonder if this isn’t a good case study of the concern that I have with the post-modern difficulty that exists in the testifying that Richard is talking about? Can it lead to the other person making this kind of statement? Instead, a challenge to act on the differences apparent between two faiths might be more effective. Of course, I am not refuting Richard’s suggestions–just noting some of the reasons why I am not sure if that type of approach is a full solution to trite (can we describe the “I know” testimonies thus?) testimony.

  15. Ryan Bell on April 21, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    I’ve enjoyed everyone’s thoughts on this discussion.

    Julie, I think you’re dead on. The spirit’s the thing. It can come in many different instances, by many different kinds of testifying. Just as each person often experiences the Spirit in different ways, we probably all have different ways of giving expression to that feeling, and each need to find that mode of expression that will maximize the spiritual impact.

    For the (brothers?) Fowles, I agree that there is much good in identifying a moment of conversion and testifying about it. However, I think this method also has real problems. I think that mode of testifying would take us dangerously close to the evangelical kind of witnessing, where the guiding spiritual experience is when one accepted Christ and was saved. For the Latter-day Saint, the moment of receiving a personal witness of the truth of the gospel or church is very important, even seminal. But I don’t think we ought to base our testimonies on it. The very meaning of conversion is that we are new people ever since that time. Thus, while the story of originally receiving our testimony is relevant as explanation and history, it’s no more relevant in terms of bearing testimony than the feelings I had last week while taking the sacrament. We are not believers in a one-time epiphany that is sufficient for the rest of our lives. In an ideal world, we would all have something to share about a recent spiritual experience, all the time.

    In short, I don’t think any event is that relevant to a testimony. A testimony is knowledge. That’s why we say “I know.” The conversion experience can often be useful as a helpful illustration of how one came across the knowledge, but we must remember, the knowledge is what needs to be shared. Experiences are secondary, and could sometimes lead us down the wrong path if overemphasized.

  16. Eric Moellmer on June 7, 2004 at 11:15 pm

    After many years I am finding my faith I do not remember having as a child. Although my mother insists that I did. I do remember the standard ‘i know’ formula taught to me as a child and I always equated with the ‘i am’. I know I am a child of god. When I give my testimony it is for myself more than for anyone else. To remind myself infront of my peers what it is that I beleive. When I was told to do this as a child I didn’t question whether the words were right, it just was. Being a child, I don’t know if I was being naive, or true, perhaps both. At 37 I am learning most of it all over again and I can understand how anyone can get bogged down in semantics. It happens to me everyday, always trying to find the right thing to say. That is why I have to stop and ask myself for whom am I saying it?

  17. Eric Moellmer on June 7, 2004 at 11:16 pm

    After many years I am finding my faith I do not remember having as a child. Although my mother insists that I did. I do remember the standard ‘i know’ formula taught to me as a child and I always equated with the ‘i am’. I know I am a child of god. When I give my testimony it is for myself more than for anyone else. To remind myself infront of my peers what it is that I beleive. When I was told to do this as a child I didn’t question whether the words were right, it just was. Being a child, I don’t know if I was being naive, or true, perhaps both. At 37 I am learning most of it all over again and I can understand how anyone can get bogged down in semantics. It happens to me everyday, always trying to find the right thing to say. That is why I have to stop and ask myself for whom am I saying it?

  18. Jim F. on June 8, 2004 at 2:35 am

    Eric, though I hope my testimony is deeper than it was when I joined the Church, I continue to have the experience you describe: I’m learning my testimony over again; I’m searching for the right things to say; I’m reminding myself of what I believe.

  19. Ron on October 13, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    I think most of us can relate to Tims remarks #7, when our faith is tested at times. Joseph Smith said he himself would not accept what happened to him, had he not experienced the first vision himself. How can
    than some of us be expected to believe what Joseph stated he might not believe. And how can even God
    expect us to, if Joseph would not have believed?

    Is what we believe truth, or is truth what we believe
    think about this
    Ron

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