Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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.

13 Responses to “Gaining a Testimony: As Easy As Being Saved”

  1. Hi Brian,
    This was very interesting to me (as a non-LDS follower of Jesus). Like you pointed out in the post, I see the similarity here between someone who is “saved” in some short term emotional experience that, in the end, has no transformative effect on the rest of their life, and with the LDS idea of gaining a testimony of the truth of the church. You hit a point that really resonates with me. Coming to faith in Christ and gaining a testimony can both be hollow emotions. Without some serious contemplation and knowledge about Jesus, in many cases, a persons “born again experience” might be just that. An experience, like falling in love. But Christi is calling for marriage, not just the transitory emotion that is often mistaken for love. And likewise as you’ve raised above, the difference between “having a testimony” via emotions and actually being confident of the truth of something, is very different. Where do the emotions stem from. Knowledge, or desire?
    Anyways, thanks for your thoughts, you stirred my own!

    • BrianJ said

      “Where do the emotions stem from. Knowledge, or desire?” That’s a good question. Part of the problem of lacking real experience with the Gospel is that even if the answer to your question was “knowledge,”—i.e., no confirmation bias was at play—the question may still come up at a later date. When doubts arise years later, when the feeling is gone, it’s impossible to examine those feelings and gain reassurance.

      I also like your reference to love vs marriage. Perhaps you could respond to Karell Bingham’s comment below if there is a better explanation of “being born again.”

  2. karell Bingham said

    Hi, Brian, I humbly disagree with you a bit. A testimony differs from someone who claims that they are saved in an important way. Being born again needs only to be experienced once before it might be considered valid. A testimony is something that must always be attended to. Day after day. Just as the Book of Mormon indicates, it needs to be watered and fed and guarded just like a tender tree that has just been planted. A testimony grows and blooms with every faith promoting experience, every prayer, every daily scripture reading. Even then, if you have not established a relationship with the Lord, it can fail. Testimonies ebb and flow with the best of us, it just takes time. My understaing of “being born again and then you are saved” seems to necessitate only one experience, whereas a testimony continually must be attended to and guarded as it grows until it blooms, as indicated in the Book of Mormon, into a living tree. “…looking forward to the fruit therof, it shall take root and behild it she be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.”

    • BrianJ said

      I think you’re right that we disagree only slightly.

      You bring up an interesting scripture. Alma makes an explicit distinction between knowing and believing. Using Alma’s terminology, the seed represents belief and only the actual tree represents knowledge. Yet in our regular sharing of testimonies, we don’t make the same distinction. In fact, we often use testimony-bearing about the seed as a means of watering the seed: as in, “a testimony is found in the bearing of it.” It’s like watering the seed with its own endosperm (or to use a more common phrase: pulling up on one’s own bootstraps).

      The other important point Alma makes is in compartmentalizing knowledge or belief of particular things. After one has a perfect knowledge from one tree, Alma states that one’s knowledge is perfect “in that thing.” Not all things, just that thing. Thus, when I think of what it means to have a “testimony of the Gospel,” using Alma’s imagery I picture an orchard, not a single tree. After planting and attending many seeds, I can have many trees that provide a perfect knowledge of many things. In other words, I do not have a testimony, I have many testimonies.

    • Hi Karen (and Brian)

      I agree with Karen. As far as I understand being “born again” it is a one time thing. When you place your faith in Jesus Christ, the holy spirit indwells you.

      One interesting difference between general Christianity, and LDS belief is the view of what a testimony is. For the general Christian, it is, in its essence, sharing about the circumstances in which you came to put your faith in Christ (and then usually the life changing, transformative after effect of the believer’s life.)

      As I have visited ward services where testimonies are shared, and heard missionaries share their own testimonies, my view of LDS testimonies is slightly different. It seems more of a focus on the conclusion that “I know this is the true church of Jesus Christ and that Joseph Smith is a true prophet.” I’ve never heard that kind of language or emphasis in any of the general Christian churches I’ve attended. I’ve never heard a statement anywhere close to, “I know this is the true church . . . ” but this might be due to a different word we chose to use. We use “believe” instead of know.

      I haven’t really put my finger on the difference here. I need to think about it more. But it always feels a bit strange when I hear. “I know this is the true church . . .etc,” Anyways. good discussion here!

  3. JKC said

    Great post, Brian. One thought that comes to mind is the difference between emotion and revelation. I think we do ourselves a disservice when, in describing how we experience the Holy Ghost, we reduce it to a bundle of emotions. As Brandon asks, “where does the emotion stem from, knowledge or desire?” While I of course believe that it is important to experience spiritual confirmation, I think we need to be wise (and humble) enough to question our own selves when we think we’ve experienced such confirmation. I’ve come to believe that when Jesus said things like “seek and ye shall find” and “signs shall follow them that believe,” he was pronouncing a curse as much as a blessing–that is, if you are inclined to believe something that is false, your desire for a spiritual confirmation could very likely lead you to “find” confirmation of false beliefs. (Or, even worse, the Lord himself might actually give you the confirmation that you seek, even though it’s not true.) I think an interesting example of this is the prophet’s experience with the 116 pages. Traditionally, we assume that the Lord got sick of the prophet’s wearying requests to share the translation and gave in to the prophet’s repeated asking. But what if he didn’t do that at all, and the “revelation” giving permission was really the prophet exercising so much desire that he received a confirmation that wasn’t there.

    Something I find instructive is a detail in the story told about President Kimball before the 1978 priesthood revelation: when he struggled with the Lord for a long time before the revelation came, he wasn’t asking the Lord to please, please, please, pretty please change the policy; he was asking the Lord to help him to purge himself of all pre-conceived desires or notions, to be able to humble himself and clear his mind of all bias that he might receive the word of the Lord pure and undefiled by the prophet’s own thoughts on the matter. And isn’t that really what we should be doing when we exercise faith to receive spiritual confirmation? After all, faith is trust in God; it is not just really really wanting an answer. It seems to me that a testimony that is the product of that kind of sincere struggle study it out, but then to purge oneself of one’s own prejudgment before asking, is the kind of testimony that is not easily forgotten; while the “testimony” that is not much more than an emotional surge is not the kind that will last.

    • BrianJ said

      Wow, JKC, I don’t have anything to add to your comment except to say that you elaborate very well on the rough ideas in my post. The point about purging oneself of preconceived ideas is particularly interesting. Thank you for the added insight, and especially for the intriguing examples of Smith and Kimball. (Do you know a reference for the latter?)

      • JKC said

        Here’s the reference that I was thinking of, from Ed Kimball’s article on the 1978 revelation:

        “Day after day, and especially on Saturdays and Sundays when there were no organizations [sessions] in the temple, I went there when I could be alone. I was very humble . . . I was searching for this . . . I wanted to be sure. . . . I had a great deal to fight . . . myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.”

      • JKC said

        Here’s the article. The quote is on page 48. http://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/47.2KimballSpencerb0a083df-b26b-430b-9ce2-3efec584dcd9.pdf

  4. This was a great topic Brian and you have done an excellent job at that. I really enjoyed all the comments and have learned from them. I have had these notes written on my desk for two days and could not post. It felt, as if something was missing. Then I read JKC’s post, and re-read the other posts, and it struck me, that, which I was looking for, and then you went and complicated it with the many testimonies…Smile.

    Like many of the posts here, I am finding this to be rich in substance, thought provoking intellectual stimuli, and truly a feast upon the word! Much of the time this is difficult for me to find elsewhere, more especially, with regards to the internet.

    Though, after reading all this, I am still wondering how we could still wonder [main concepts], for instance, whether the ordinance of baptism, or tithing, or resurrection is not true, just to name a few… and to know … if one has gained a witness of the Book of Mormon? If one has gained such a witness, doesn’t one come to know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and will come to know that, what is taught in the Book of Mormon is true, and can, from reading it, know? Or can one have a testimony that the book is true and doubt the [main] concepts or ordinances within it, as some may suggest? Also, won’t obedience to laws and ordinances, principles taught bring the added witness and thereby knowledge that it is true? For instance, how could I ever receive a witness of tithing being true, if I never pay a full tithing, hence, how could I know? Perhaps, I could only have a measure of hope and possibly belief. One can only have this “experience of knowing” by doing, obedience. Every law, and the blessings and knowledge that ensue, is predicated by obedience to said [eternal] law.

    I admit we may have to wait to try on the law and ordinance of the resurrection, which somehow, me thinks, we will find the needed patience. What think ye?

    The Book of Mormon teaches that not a limb or hair on our bodies will be lost, and that our spiritual bodies will be united once again with our mortal bodies of flesh, and that we will inherit a glory after judgment, and those that entered into the everlasting covenant can be sealed …His, with our families for time and eternity. Now, I recognize to have absolute knowledge and knowing…ness would be difficult, since I too have not seen the Baptist, or died or been resurrected yet, save it be by baptism only. Yet, isn’t that in of itself a witness accompanied by the spirit? Isn’t having that witness then a form of our knowing, although not absolute with the experience that death accompanies? It’s been said, that we must trust. Also, I concur with JKC… It seems to me that a testimony that is the product of that kind of sincere struggle study it out, but then to purge oneself of one’s own prejudgment before asking, is the kind of testimony that is not easily forgotten; while the “testimony” that is not much more than an emotional surge is not the kind that will last..
    Although a spiritual confirmation could very likely lead you to “find” confirmation of false beliefs…I wonder if it will begin to “enlarge my soul” and “enlighten my understanding” and become “delicious to me?”

    I found that many miracles in my own life have been expedited even according to my very desires, save it be only a few, after submersing myself deep into the wellsprings of the Book of Mormon and putting on the virtue of the word of God, through prayer by night and day, carrying a prayer in my heart continually, offering my very words in deed, although in a very personal & private way. I have seen things and envisioned things happening and then watched as it unfolded [things as they pertained to me and those around me]. Having laid hands on some and watched as the blessing pronounced by the power of the spirit had come to pass, even according to the words pronounced, and on one very special occasion, there were witnesses. Our family led by its Patriarch just prior to Super Storm Sandy, got down on bended knee we heard a loud crash, and witnessed, after the fact, a very large tree, miss toppling our home, by mere inches. Our family was on the brink of financial ruin, and we had to leave our home in a beautiful private gated community, and had struggled for many years while here in our new and current area. Although supportive, during those times, we may have lost the confidence of our local leaders. Our families had been there for us in such ways, in of itself, is mind boggling, and they continue to be there for us. The feeling and measure of love we feel for them can hardly be contained. Now we employ people, and some who were destitute and we sheltered and fed them. We spent nearly half of our marriage having others living with us at no cost, even when we ourselves struggled.

    I had fasted for many days at a time for many months including modified fasts. If those in the Book of Mormon could fast, even to what seemed to me, near starvation for the power of the word of God, to preach and to perform miracles, then why could I not do likewise? So it began, I had fasted continually for our family, but more especially for my dear wife whom I love and cherish [medical issues], and also, for what seemed impossible, and even hopeless, became our miracle, and our family were finally sealed for time and eternity.

    I do not tell of these things to self-aggrandize, or to boast, for as to myself, I know that I am = nothing, even less then dust of the earth. I know as assuredly as the Lord liveth, what the Lord giveth, the Lord can taketh away. I have felt and experienced His matchless power in mine own life. My only desire would be to reach even unto you.

    I can honestly state, I know the Book of Mormon had stirred feelings from within and as I was prompted and applied each principle taught, it’s… as if, what was dead, even that which was from the dust, became alive. How could this be if this were the work of man? With that said, I also know, that I am weak, as to the flesh and sin doth easily beset me, yet, I know in whom I trust. Continually renewing my covenants and feel His grace, mercy and endless love. May His spirit ever come upon each of us, that our lives may become “peace as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea”.

    I especially like the idea of bearing witness of Christ (assuming one has that testimony) and tie principles like that of a seed planted and still growing, all along nurturing it… to Him. There have been many valiant witnesses in the cause of Christ, even at least 22, not to mention countless others, including children at the Bountiful Temple, who were worthy to be surrounded by angels, and see and bear witness of He whom is Holy, the living resurrected Christ, even Jesus, the son of the Almighty God.

    And, If you never know anything else about me, know that I know, by the power and witness of His spirit, in a time future, like many, will see my redeemer and it is my greatest hope and desire to be filled with His light and to become like Him, and to be called thou faithful servant, come and enter in.

    I have a testimony of the things which I speak of [write], and say unto you they are true, and I know that the Book of Mormon is an account of inspired writing for our day, and that the Lord God, doth fulfill his promises according to all His words, even unto all the promises He has made. What more do I really need to know?

    Is it not line upon line…grace for grace…do we not go from intelligence to intelligence, from glory to glory, from power to power, forward and ever upward until such time that we will know…the meaning of all things? It seems the more I learn the less I know. At what point do we become still?

    It’s understandable that when there’s NO supporting evidence in the Book of Mormon or other scripture. A scholar will not embrace a theory to explain away a problem that is not supported by the evidence. That said, this particular scripture has some bearing,

    And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no WITNESS until after the trial of your faith. [Ether 12:6]

    As people we need to be careful in regards to the organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull of vertebrates, functioning as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity, otherwise, a malfunction could cause overload. When or should this occur, remember the KISS {keep it simple silly] formula and go back to the basics.

  5. Matthew F said

    I wonder if your post has a conflict in it that mirrors a conflict I feel. If so I would love it if you resolve the conflict. Then I could too.

    You are talking about better and worse versions of testimonies but you seem to want to avoid judging others’ testimonies. Is that right?

    I find myself wanting to, and not having a clue how to, judge what should count for someone else’s testimony. I reject the idea, implicit in how we often talk about testimonies, that they are entirely subjective so there is no place for someone else to judge one person’s testimony. If that were true, what would be the value of sharing one’s testimony.

    But my experience of judging other’s testimony negatively hasn’t been helpful to me I think. For me it feels like trying to judge whether someone else has been dating long enough to get married, or someone else has been mourning the death of a spouse long enough to start dating. In all three cases it makes sense to me that we should be able to discuss the topic and talk about what is reasonable or not, as your post does for testimonies. But when it comes to actually talking about any specific case, I don’t feel confident in my ability to judge.

    For me there is a conflict there I haven’t figured out how to resolve.

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