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“I know” (I think): Closing Class with Your Testimony

Posted by BrianJ on January 23, 2008

A few months ago, two very thoughtful members of my class offered some constructive criticism of my teaching. Among other things, they referred me to Elder Holland’s talk in the Worldwide Leadership Training Broadcast targeted to teachers. I responded that I have some difficulty understanding how to practice what Holland preached. Specifically, I am uncomfortable with the “always end class with your testimony” method. There are actually quite a few reasons for which I find this difficult to do; I’m restricting myself to focus on just one here because it’s the one the bothers me most. (Read carefully: it bothers me to do it, not that it bothers me when other people do it; this post is about me, not about you or anyone else.)

“I Know”

Many, many times, I have been taught that when I teach, I must end with a testimony, and that when I bear testimony, I must use the words “I know.” The new Preach My Gospel manual says this about testifying:

A testimony is a spiritual witness and assurance given by the Holy Ghost. To bear testimony is to give a simple, direct declaration of belief. This includes making promises that come from living true principles. For example, a missionary might say, “I know as you keep the Sabbath day holy, you will find more peace in your heart.” Bear testimony often to seal the truth of the principles or doctrine you are teaching. As often as possible, teach, then testify, and testify as you teach. (Preach My Gospel)

The problem that I have with this is that I am asked, as a Sunday School teacher, to teach hundreds of different doctrines, principles, and whatever else you want to call them. Nevertheless, I, in fact, do not have a testimony of all of them. Probably not even a majority of them.

The Preach My Gospel manual asks the following interesting question, though I don’t think I’m reading it the way the authors intended:

When you say, “I know that __________ is true,” what do you mean?

Yeah, what exactly does that mean? When someone says that they know something (or any of the synonymous phrases: “I bear witness” or “I testify” etc.), I have to think about Alma preaching to the Zoramites:

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. But behold, as the seed swelleth… will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant…. (Alma 32: 26-34)

So What? What’s the Big Deal?

Let’s say that I just taught a lesson about how we can be resurrected some day. It’s time to end the lesson, so I bear my testimony: “I know that we will all be resurrected.” Surely it’s sound doctrine, no problem there. But do I actually know that we will be resurrected? What am I basing that knowledge on? If it’s based on an eye-witness account (e.g., I met a few resurrected people) or a personal witness (i.e., the Holy Ghost revealed it to me), then I am perfectly comfortable with stating such a testimony. But I can tell you—speaking only for myself—that I have not had any such witness. I know that there is a God. I know that God answers some of my prayers. I know God wants me to study the scriptures. (I could go on.) But I don’t know that I will be resurrected. Or saved from hell. Or exalted. (I could go on.) I have faith and hope that I will be saved, but as Alma teaches, those seeds are still growing.

So I am reluctant to say that “I know” when in fact I do not. First, it’s dishonest, and I know that honesty is the best policy. Second, I fear that it “waters down” the phrase. I revealed above that I do not know that there is a resurrection. However, I know a lot of people who will say that they know—but do they really? Wouldn’t it be amazing for someone like me to talk to someone who really does know? But how can I ever identify that person when so many others claim to know—what is left for the “real McCoy” to say in order to identify himself?

I think of this in context of the First Vision and also of our living prophets. Joseph said, “I know that Jesus lives” and we understand the reason for his conviction. He didn’t need faith (in that thing) after such a witness. The Apostles are defined as “special witnesses of Jesus Christ,” suggesting that they have some special knowledge or experience. How do you distinguish between Brother Joseph (or Brothers Gordon, Thomas, Henry, et al.) saying “I know” and me saying “I know”? Is the difference between Joseph’s knowledge and my faith important enough that my language should make the distinction clear?

27 Responses to ““I know” (I think): Closing Class with Your Testimony”

  1. brianj said

    Most of what’s relevant to this discussion isn’t actually from Holland’s talk, but from other sources. I just mention Holland because he “got me thinking.” Here are some quotes to consider:

    May we conclude here the way that every teacher must conclude his or her class, in the Church and at home—in the spirit of testimony…. I have been painfully disappointed over the years at wonderful lessons, given by loyal, gifted teachers who, somehow, at the end of a class, say, “Well, there is the bell. Brother Jones, would you give the prayer?” And it’s over….not a hint of personal testimony about what that doctrine or that principle meant to the teacher, the one who was supposed to lead us and guide us and walk beside us. (Holland)

    We must not hesitate to say, “I know,” when we do know. (Hanks)

    My experience throughout the Church leads me to worry that too many of our members’ testimonies linger on “I am thankful” and “I love,” and too few are able to say with humble but sincere clarity, “I know.” As a result, our meetings sometimes lack the testimony-rich, spiritual underpinnings that stir the soul and have meaningful, positive impact on the lives of all those who hear them. … The lesson, I believe, is clear: having a testimony alone is not enough. In fact, when we are truly converted, we cannot be restrained from testifying. And as it was with Apostles and faithful members of old, so is it also our privilege, our duty, and our solemn obligation to “declare the things which [we] know to be true” (D&C 80:4). (Ballard)

    Since it is the Holy Ghost who testifies of sacred truth, we can do at least three things to make that experience more likely for our families. First, we can teach some sacred truth. Then we can testify that we know what we have taught is true. (Eyring)

    When the 23-year-old Heber J. Grant was installed as president of the Tooele Stake, he told the Saints he believed the gospel was true. President Joseph F. Smith, a counselor in the First Presidency, inquired, “Heber, you said you believe the gospel with all your heart, … but you did not bear your testimony that you know it is true. Don’t you know absolutely that this gospel is true?” Heber answered, “I do not.” Joseph F. Smith then turned to John Taylor, the President of the Church, and said, “I am in favor of undoing this afternoon what we did this morning. I do not think any man should preside over a stake who has not a perfect and abiding knowledge of the divinity of this work.” President Taylor replied, “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph, [Heber] knows it just as well as you do. The only thing that he does not know is that he does know it.” (Callister)

  2. robf said

    Perhaps, like Alma, we should be fasting and praying many days so that we can know that these heretofore accepted on faith teachings are true? Or if we are teaching by the Spirit, shouldn’t that Spirit witness to us at the very time that we are teaching that these teachings are true?

  3. J. Stapley said

    I doubt that anyone would notice the difference if you said, “I earnestly believe in the Resurrection and the light added by the Restored Gospel give me great peace, comfort and hope.”

  4. douglas Hunter said

    Brian,

    I like your post a lot. For various reasons I’ve always thought (both before and after I became one myself.) that religious folks talk about knowledge in rather odd ways.

    1) Lately I’ve been thinking about the issue as a matter of different knowledge traditions. Specifically the difference between the jewish tradition and the way Christianity was combined with Platonic thought. If I understand the distinction correctly the Platonic notion of knowledge or truth is one that posits both as absolute, as everlasting and universal. On the other hand in in the Jewish tradition Truth and knowledge are subjective, local, and historical. As far as I can tell this should also be the case for us Mormons since we place so much emphasis on revelation we need to be open to established truths being re-worked without warning. Our emphasis on personal revelation also makes this the case. But when people stand up in Church and claim to “know” something which sphere of knowledge are they speaking from?

    2) In my own religious thinking faith is of far greater value than knowledge. My conversion to Christianity (Mormonism) was dependent upon faith but knowledge played almost no role. My conversion required stepping beyond knowledge. These days I find it helpful to “know” as little as possible.

  5. Clark said

    I think bearing testimony is like sharing personal experiences. You have to be careful because not all experiences (or things related to testimony) are appropriate for such a public setting. Likewise you have to be careful not to be phony. But both testimony and person stories end up making teaching a lot more interesting, relevant, and memorable to people.

  6. Jared* said

    Hmm. Somebody better tell President Hinckley to get with the program.

  7. joespencer said

    Those who suffer through my seminary podcasts will know :) how I handle this situation: I don’t bear testimony of what we’re talking about at all. I usually make some kind of a bridge from whatever we’re talking about to what matters most: the work is true, we are trying to be true to God, since He is true to us, etc. So I tend to end with something like this: “Marvelous, this work, is it not? Strange thing, this Isaiah. And yet so much power in his teachings, so much that calls us to the work. I know that work is true, that we ought to be true to it, whatever that entails…” For what it’s worth.

    Jared: :) Good call.

  8. NathanG said

    Brian,
    My thoughts are similar to joe’s (how often do I get to say that:)?) You can testify of something you know or believe. It seems like it would be a good practice in our lessons and testimony meetings to bear testimony of Christ and relate all things to him. “I believe in Christ and I hope our discussion on tithing has helped you come to appreciate your Savior more, it has helped me.” or “I know that Christ is my redeemer and learning about service helps me understand his mission on earth much better.”

    You also mentioned the seed analogy. So you don’t have to have a perfect knowledge of the tree to know that the seed is good. The doctrine of resurrection can taste good to me and it can stir within my soul, but that doesn’t mean I know very much about what resurrection really is, but I could probably feel honest saying something like “I know we will live again” because I know what my minimal knowledge of the subject feels like.

    The quotes you selected seem to support only testifying if you know it’s true (which you don’t seem to have a problem with). I recall a talk (I want to attribute it to Elder Packer in “Candle of the Lord” but I’m not certain) that suggests that we use the language “I know” as a more powerful exercise of faith that will allow the Spirit to confirm with more power to our hearts that the principle is true. This is in harmony with the often used phrase “A testimony is found in the bearing of it.”

  9. Molly Bennion said

    To Douglas Hunter’s excellent reliance on “faith” when “know” is not appropriate, I would add “hope.” All three words have their place in testimony and “know,” the smallest place for many of us.

  10. brianj said

    robf: I’d like to think that I am trying to know more things. But “line upon line,” right?

    J Stapley: Part of the reason for this post is that people have noticed the difference.

    Douglas: both points are quite interesting. Continuing revelation does put a certain twist on the idea of unchanging truth—I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    Clark: I try to make my teaching a continual personal testimony: “Here are my emotions, knowledge, witness, questions, hope, and experience with Chapter 5.” It usually comes through.

    Jared*: Yes, I remember Hinckley’s talk! I can’t believe that I didn’t link to it. It’s interesting, though, how he still uses phrases like “I believe without equivocation or reservation….”

    Joe: perhaps I will post a Part II on this, because I rarely end my classes with any kind of “summary points.”

    Nathan: I think the quotes show a bit of a mix. Ballard’s, for one, suggests that we should know, and if we don’t then we aren’t living up to our duty. I’m not really comfortable with “A testimony is found in the bearing of it” for many reasons. Once again, it is dishonest. Wouldn’t it be better to say, “I feel the Spirit with us now, and believe that it is bearing testimony that what we are saying is true”?

    Molly Bennion: Hope. Amen.

  11. douglas Hunter said

    Molly,

    You are completely right, thanks for the addition.

  12. Jared said

    I don’t suppose the Lord is required to visit us with a testimony on every individual subject of the gospel as we encounter and reflect on it, no more than He is required to provide a special miracle every time the sun rises.

    In my opinion, if one has a testimony of the Book of Mormon then he/she can testify of every doctrine contained therein. Additionally,it could be argued that having a testimony of the Book of Mormon means one has a testimony of Joseph Smith and can therefore testify of all that he said and did as well.

  13. Mike L. said

    I don’t have much to add to the discussion except for a personal anecdote:

    When I was in primary my dad substituted one day for the teacher. He (probably inappropriately) brought up this topic. In hindsight I think he was saying something like what your post said, or perhaps trying to make the point about faith not being a perfect knowledge. But of course my mind was not quite as developed, and so the message that I got was “it’s impossible to know anything.” And I still think of that lesson when I hear or say “I know” when bearing testimony, although I now understand better the nuances of the issue.

    Of course I’ve heard my dad say “I know” often when bearing his own testimony, so the message I got clearly is not what he intended.

  14. Jim F. said

    Isn’t it a mistake to think that Alma is talking about particular facts? Isn’t he teaching us how to obtain a testimony of the Word of God and, so, of the word of God? I can know that the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ, is true, and Alma tells me how that is possible, namely by seeing how trust in Christ leads me to fullness of life.

    If I make the test that Alma recommends and discover what he tells me I will, it doesn’t follow that I know that all of the claims we make about the Church, about doctrine, about everything else are true. I don’t know that those I haven’t yet learned are true. I can believe things now only to discover that I was fooled by the foolish traditions of my fathers. And there is a sense in which I can know that the gospel is true without knowing that there will be a resurrection. But how far does my knowledge of the truth of the gospel reach? Isn’t there a sense in which my testimony of Christ and my testimony of many, though not all, other things cannot be tweezed apart and, so, a sense in which knowledge of the first entails knowledge of the other things?

    If I know that Jesus is the Christ and I trust in him, then how can I doubt his promise that I will be resurrected? I certainly understand the problem because it is one I face myself: As I grow older I have discovered quite directly and existentially that there is a legitimate and sometimes frightening sense in which I cannot say “I know that there is life after death.” But when I say that I don’t know about life after death, I have to treat that claim as if it were one more claim about the world, which it is not.

    To say, “I know that I will be resurrected” is a shorthand way of saying, “I know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, the Savior. He has promised that I will be resurrected, and I trust in his promise.” If “I know I will be resurrected” isn’t shorthand for something along those lines, then of what could it be a testimony? Of a mere fact, not of salvation.

  15. brianj said

    Jared: “if one has a testimony of the Book of Mormon then he/she can testify of every doctrine contained therein.” In some ways I agree, but I also have two problems with this idea. 1) I don’t understand or am unaware of many doctrines in the BoM, so it is impossible for me to bear testimony of them. 2) Sometimes it’s hard to know whether a “doctrine” is a “true doctrine.” For example, Mormon says that “if everyone were like Moroni then the gates of hell would shake.” Is that “doctrine” or his opinion? Can I testify of that? Should I?

    Mike L: Thanks for the story. Part of my worry is how my daughters will understand my testimony.

    Jim F: I think that for the most part we agree. (And maybe we completely agree.) It seems that Alma allows for some compartmentalization with the phrase “…in that thing.” I agree that he’s not talking about facts, per se. Is the shorthand always appropriate? It seems to me that it depends on what is being discussed. As you point out, when pressed on your belief/knowledge of life after death, you have faith but not knowledge. In some situations, would it be better to spell out your testimony, telling the listener that your testimony of the resurrection is based on your testimony of and trust in the Savior? And in that same discussion, wouldn’t it be interesting to hear from someone who had a testimony of resurrection that was more direct (e.g., Joseph and Oliver after seeing the Baptist)?

  16. joespencer said

    I’ll take Molly’s point one step further: faith, hope, and charity. I often say “I love this work” or “I love the scriptures” or something like that in my testimony. Perhaps we should be believing, hoping, and loving far more than we ought to be knowing…?

    Jim, I agree with your points of clarification about Alma 32. There is a subtle play between the Word and the words (always plural) in that chapter, the former always being Christ and the latter the teachings/writings of true messengers. What we are coming to know is the truthfulness (the faithfulness, the being-true-ness) of a messenger: we are trying to determine whether this is a true messenger who will lead me in correct paths, etc.

  17. robf said

    And I wonder if we place too much emphasis on what it means to “know” something. Sometimes I think even Joseph Smith was just “going with the flow” of his thoughts or The Spirit, and was willing to accept them as true if they “felt right” somehow.

  18. colleen said

    i actually bore my testimony once in Sacrament Meeting and said that basically i didn’t know a dang thing was true, but that i chose to believe it and that i love the gospel. i was burning inside (in the good way) but just couldn’t take another “i know” testimony. i suspected that there had to be at least one other person in the congregation that felt the way i did, that we could never truly “know” that which is un-seeable, un-touchable.

    i was pleasantly surprised at the reaction. only one woman approached me who had obviously misunderstood what i was trying to say. she expressed her kind pity and said how difficult it must be to follow the church with no testimony of it. short of sitting down with her for half an hour, i saw no way to make her understand. i had many others embrace me and thank me. one kind lady even sent me a card thanking me for my testimony.

    #6 jared, thanks. that made me feel much better.

  19. nhilton said

    Brianj, I understand your feelings. As a GD teacher I, too, are careful about what I say “I KNOW” about. However, I frequently focus on bearing my testimony of the scriptures and how they enrich and bless my life. This is in an effort to motivate the students to study them outside of class.

    My husband tells me that whenever I bear my testimony, on whatever the subject, using the hope, believe, know words that the power of the Spirit is stronger in the room. Knowing this, I try to do this throughout my lesson, not only at the end. I do believe our “testimony” moments are clearer conduits through which the Spirit can work. If you make a habbit of doing it at the end, that’s good. However, sometimes beginning with your testimony can be key to even inviting the Spirit and staying on track with the heart of your gospel message.

    Thanks for being so honest with regard to your personal feelings.

  20. brianj said

    colleen: thanks for sharing your personal experience.

    nanette: you’ve convinced me to post part II of this topic….

  21. Jim F said

    brianj: Yes, I think we are at least almost in agreement, if not completely.

    The place where we may disagree: I don’t think it is inappropriate to say “I know I will be resurrected” when I mean “I trust in Christ’s promise that I will be resurrected.”

    My wife can reasonably say, “I know that Jim will be home at about 5:00 this evening” because she trusts my word that I will. I think we sometimes put too much of the weight of mathematical certainty on the word “know.” It doesn’t bear that weight in most of it other uses. Why insist that it bear it when I speak of spiritual things?

  22. RuthS said

    I appreciate this discussion particularly JimF’s comments. There is more than one kind of knowing just as there is external evidence and internal evidence. The knowing that comes from internal evidence is much more real to most people than is knowing that comes from the external.

    I am surprised by Brianj’s statement that the BoM contains little doctrine. I see doctrine all over the place. Mormon is probably stating his opinion of Captain Moroni, and right off I can’t think of any doctrine he is applying here except for the great faith Captain Moroni apparently had. Since some reference to Christ is on practically every page it shouldn’t be difficult to testify of Christ if nothing else.

    The original explanation and the problem presented seem to me turn not on what we know or what we can testify of, but on the exigencies of teaching a SS class in circumstances that don’t always lend themselves to concluding a class in a way that makes testifying possible. Part of it has to do with preparation. Part of it has to do with the class itself and how participatory they are. It is just quite difficult, unless you can cut your presentation down to one really well supported and discussed point, to be able to wrap things up in a timely and satisfying way. A lesson is not a talk. It just doesn’t always go the way we think it will.

  23. JWL said

    Do you have to use certain verbal formulations and only cover specified doctrinal points for it to be a “testimony”? What if you ended the lesson with an affirmation of some insight or doctrine or inspiring example contained in the scriptural text covered by the lesson? For example, this scriptural story shows how we can overcome obstacles, teaches us the value of humility, illustrates living the Gospel under difficult circumstances, etc.? Or is only testimony if you say you know God lives, Jesus is the Christ and the church is true? Of course those are critical points, but for me my testimony extends to many other points as well, and I view concluding with them to be as much bearing testimony as repeating the standard formulation.

  24. brianj said

    RuthS, #22:

    I was totally confused by what you said: “I am surprised by Brianj’s statement that the BoM contains little doctrine.” I couldn’t think of a single place where I made that claim. I went back and reread my comments a few times, and then I realized what I said that came across this way:

    “I don’t understand or am unaware of many doctrines in the BoM” (comment 15)

    What you understood: “I am unaware of there being very many doctrines in the BoM; i.e., there ain’t many in there”
    What I meant: “There are many doctrines in the BoM of which I am not aware; i.e., I know of many, and yet there are many more yet to discover”

  25. NathanG said

    Brian,
    You could just commit yourself to say something in conclusion and just let the Spirit tell you what to say. If the Spirit leads you to say “I know” then don’t doubt whether you are being truthful. If it leads you to say “I believe” or “I love” don’t worry about the judgment of men. I personally appreciate a lesson or a talk that ends with a testimony, it gives a sense of closure.

    I think I should live by this rule of Spirit-led testimony. I don’t know how many testimony meetings I have sat through trying to formulate my testimony before even considering going up to the pulpit, even though I have some desire to share something. Somehow I find myself remaining in my seat much more often than getting up to the pulpit with this approach.

  26. brianj said

    Okay, a sort of follow-up post is now up.

  27. […] I’ve written on this topic before. I don’t mean to rehash old discussions. The primary purpose of this new post is to […]

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