Gaining a Testimony: As Easy As Being Saved
Posted by BrianJ on October 10, 2013
A recent conversation about the challenges in keeping youth and 20-somethings in the Church got me to notice a similarity between how we talk about testimonies and how other Christians talk about being saved (or at least, how we talk about how they talk about being saved).
I often hear Mormons criticizing born-again Christians for believing a sort of effortless Christianity, a carefree attitude toward commandments or sin because, “I trust in Jesus so I’m saved.” This upsets our belief that we are judged by our works, that empty repentance is just that: empty, and that God demands obedience because he actually wants us to obey. So we scoff at this apparent “easy route” to heaven, insisting that true discipleship worthy of exaltation requires diligence and actual work.
But let’s shift to how we talk about gaining a testimony—or how we indicate that a testimony has been gained. I don’t mean to cover every discussion on the topic of gaining a testimony, but rather to focus on the very common instruction to “pray about it and the Lord will reveal the truth through the Holy Ghost.” We could, for example, point to the missionaries’ common practice of pointing an investigator to a certain scripture in Moroni, along with a few other verses as a reading assignment, then returning to discover whether or not the investigator has a testimony of the Book of Mormon yet. Changing settings, I am reminded of the day that Thomas Monson was sustained as president of the Church: I remember many people around me testifying that they “knew” that he was a prophet. (A similar testimony regularly happens in my wards whenever a new bishop is called.)
My point is not to denigrate these rapidly formed testimonies—well, anymore or differently than we regularly denigrate born-again Christianity. Why shouldn’t we expect a testimony to require work, even a lot of work, study, prayer, and fasting? And, perhaps most importantly, a whole lot of experience with the thing we might gain a testimony of?
I look at D&C 9 and I see both sides. It starts by indicating that direction from God doesn’t come just because we ask:
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
But then continues with what still seems like an incredibly short route to comprehending an archaic language etched into gold plates:
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must cask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
I’m not really sure where to go with that. (And I recognize that this scripture is really not about testimonies anyway.)
Well, I’ve written on this topic before. I don’t mean to rehash old discussions. The primary purpose of this new post is to think about how our “easy route” testimonies affect the faith of our youth. I see two concerns:
1) A testimony that is not backed up by personal experience is forgettable. It suffers from the “borrowed light” problem we often talk about when encouraging someone to gain their own testimony.
When I was 10 years old, I suffered a serious playground accident and went home to nap. Hours later I was rushed to the hospital. The doctors in the ER (for various reasons) didn’t want to wait for general anesthesia before removing the blood from my abdomen. I distinctly remember a large, curly-haired man bent over me, pushing with what seemed like all his strength on a scalpel on my belly while two nurses removed my clothing and another inserted an IV into my arm. If you missed the part about where they injected me with some kind of painkiller, well so did they; analgesia was delivered in the IV; i.e., after I had been cut open by a knife-wielding maniac. The pain was excruciating. For weeks afterwards, whenever I looked at my scar I would double over from re-feeling the very same pain. For months, I awoke from nightmares of some beast or monster eating me alive (usually while all my friends stood and watched).
That lasted, as I said, for months. Then it just sort of…tapered off. A few years later, and I could still remember the events, but the feelings were gone. I can’t even pretend to imagine the phantom pain I used to feel when I looked at my scar, let alone re-feel the pain I felt while on the exam table. The feeling is forgotten, but the experience never will be.
2) If testimonies are so easy to get, then what are they worth? What is lost when a testimony is lost? Easy come, easy go; no big deal.
I don’t have a formal conclusion for this post. Just getting my thoughts out so I can hear yours. I can say that really don’t want my children to know that the Gospel is true, I want them to experience that it is.
So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; I was led to say in my heart: “Why persecute me for telling the truth?” For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.
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