“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.)
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?