A Different Kind of Knowledge

I could have sworn that I already wrote this essay but realized after some digging that the main points were developed as part of a long dialog with my Evangelical friend in the comments section of several of my early articles.  I also thought about entitling this, “Why we say ‘I know’ and not ‘I believe’,” but I’m not sure that it fully describes what I want to cover in this post.

The main thesis for my essay can be taken from a story about tasting salt and this statement from Boyd K. Packer: “My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt. I am no more able to convey to you in words how this knowledge has come than you are to tell me what salt tastes like.”  You would have to read “The Candle of the Lord” again to get the background if you don’t recall it.

The bearing of testimonies

A huge bone of contention and point of offense with some within the church is the fact that we get up each Fast Sunday and say to each other, “I know the church is true.  I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God.  I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet.  I know that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet today” and various other statements that start with the phrase “I know…”

They especially cite the practice of little children at the podium with a parent or sibling standing behind the child whispering the above phrases in their ear for the child to repeat out loud.  If you have been to an LDS Sacrament service on the first Sunday of the month you know what I am talking about.  Having grown up in the church this little ritual does not seem at all strange to me.

Direction from the Brethren

However, apparently enough people thought it wrong that the Brethren issued a letter to be read in all wards advising that little children practice their testimonies at home or in Primary classes instead of at the pulpit in fast and testimony meeting.  Even though this was issued more then five years ago, the practice continues and so it bears re-reading by bishoprics on a regular basis.

To quote: “It may be best to have younger children learn to share their testimonies in settings such as family home evening or when giving talks in Primary until they are old enough to do so unassisted in a fast and testimony meeting.”  Yes, little children can and do feel the spirit of the Lord bearing witness to their souls of the truth but learning to express it may take some time.

Brainwashing or groupthink

But it’s not just the children’s testimoniesthat bother some within the church.  It is the idea of saying, “I know” that such and such a thing is true when logically, they cannot possibly know of the veracity of historical events because they weren’t there.  To these people, a thanktimony or a travelogue is preferable to hear rather than to have someone say that “they know” something.

Let’s investigate that.  The claim is brainwashing or group thinking without any real thought as to what is actually being said.  Is there any validity to this claim?  Of course there is.  You and I have both seen people get up to the pulpit and just repeat what they have heard other people say without sensing any depth of meaning behind what they are saying.  What do they really know?

Discovering a testimony

And yet, consider that President Packer taught us that “a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it.”  Isn’t it possible that when our children and youth get up there and say what comes into their hearts that they are entitled to receive revelation that what they are saying is good and true?  It is my personal experience, shared in a previous essay that knowledge can be obtained like this.

Growing up in the church, we are taught in Primary and Sunday school all the basics we need to know to form a foundational testimony of the goodness and truthfulness of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.  I am a product of this system of indoctrination and training.  I can tell you from my own experience that it works, or at least that it worked for me to a certain point in my young life.

A testimony must grow

I believe that most people who grow up in the church come to a point in their lives where they must advance beyond the basic testimony of their youth.  I also believe that the many natural circumstances of life will require us to make decisions about our testimonies that can be hard and perhaps even painful.  In my opinion, it is the same process through which a convert must pass.

In other words, the testimony of the youth obtained from repeating what was heard from others, is going to be tested and tried.  Was that childish testimony invalid?  No, a testimony obtained as a child is sweet and innocent and pure.  It is valid and real but does not have the depth to sustain us as we move through our lives into a world that challenges such innocent testimonies as naïve.

The influence of leaders

Unfortunately, it is about this point that some of our young people in the church struggle with the transition to the kind of testimony that can weather the storm of adversity and opposition.  That’s where a good seminary or institute teacher can make a real difference in the lives of our youth.  For me, it was a scout advisor and counselor in a bishopric who helped me make that transition.

I knew that Jim Mortensen cared about me because of his sacrifice of time in going with us on scout trips and other activities.  Although I had heard him share his testimony before, I took an occasion to ask him point blank in a private setting to tell me how he knew the church was true.  I know I surprised him, but I will never forget the depth of his sincerity or the spirit that I felt.

A powerful example

Even though Jim came to church alone because his wife didn’t feel comfortable there, he was always cheerful and friendly.  I knew that his testimony gave him strength but wanted to know how he knew that it was true.  He answered by asking if he could bear his testimony first.  “Of course”, I said and he did.  I was not prepared for the power of what I felt as he spoke slowly.

When he finished we both had tears in our eyes.  “You see, Tim,” he said, “every time I bear my testimony it is strengthened.  Every time I tell someone else that I know it is true, I feel it deep in my heart.  It is not simply an emotional response, but a deep conviction.  Now do you understand how I know?”  I did understand and made it my goal to follow his example throughout my life.

Strengthened by sharing

As I have served in the church over the years as a missionary and as a leader in wards and stakes I have always cherished the opportunities to teach the gospeland to share my testimony.  My friend Jim Mortensen instilled in me a desire to do so because I knew that as I bore my testimony to others that it would be strengthened and I would be blessed.  I am so grateful for his example.

I hope this story from my youth illustrates a concept that is hard for many people to understand.  Here is the idea: There are more ways to receive knowledge than exclusively through the five senses of the human body.  We can receive knowledge directly from God, through the spirit of the Lord speaking directly to our spirit.  This kind of knowledge is real and very powerful.

Revelation is the source

A valid testimony will always claim revelation as its source.  The things of God are known by revelation and in no other way.  It is one thing to be able to say, “I believe, I think, I hope that the gospel is true,” but it requires personal revelation from the spirit of the Lord to declare, “I know that the Church is true.”  There is simply no other way.  We must experience revelation.

We can say that we know the church is true by the power of the Holy Ghost and in no other way. It is not through reason, logic, or the philosophies of men or the theories of the world, although these can help to explain it after the receipt.  A testimony of the gospel is received when the Holy Spirit speaks to the spirit within us.  It comes with calm, unwavering certainty into our hearts.

Summary and conclusion

We should have the courage to say “I know.” Some may think this is a trite expression, but “I know” remains a powerful and moving phrase when spoken with sincere conviction. We should say “I believe” if, in fact, we only believe and do not yet know for sure.  We should strive for the day when we can say that we know, having received that knowledge from the spirit of the Lord.

Telling stories, expressing gratitude, admitting that we have testimonies, or saying that we only believe are not the same as saying that we know.  We can know for ourselves and we should know, but that knowledge comes only on the Lord’s terms.  It is received by revelation and not by reasoning or logic.  Once received, we can then say, “I know,” with conviction and mean it.

For more information:

1. Testimony, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign May 2008
2. Topical guide reference to Testimony with scriptures
3. I had questions, Elder John U. Teh of the Seventy
4. Testimony as a process, Elder Carlos A. Godoy
5. Testimony, in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism

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