What is a testimony?
To most people a testimony is simply a statement a person gives as evidence of fact. There is really no way for another person to know the truth of another’s testimony because a testimony is based on evidence collected through the senses. Our physical senses are imperfect at best. For example, in a court room one eyewitness swears that they saw a defendant running toward the place of the crime, while another person swears they saw him running away. Both believe that is what they saw, but both can’t be right…can they?
In the realm of religion, it is somewhat the same problem. Stories and accounts that a person relates to others of spiritual experiences goes through several filtering mechanisms. The first filter is the actual experience. What was the event that caused the experience in the first place? The pure truth of what happened is filtered by the person who experiences it. That person applies the sum of his knowledge, beliefs, and prejudices in his attempt to understand what happened. That is why there is such a divergence in the stories being told about spiritual events among all the religions of the world. Even within religions, spiritual experiences are subject to individual interpretation. So, the first filter is all about the individual, who lives in the physical world, trying to make sense of something that is not of this world, that he/she has probably not encountered before.
The second filter is language. Often times things that happen of a spiritual nature defy language. Some things just cannot be described with words. How do you describe an emotion? How do you describe something there are no words in your vocabulary to describe? Also, words mean different things to different people. Precision in the use of a particular word is dependent on the education or learning of a person. Even then, finding the right words that convey an experience may be impossible to find.
The third filter is the hearer of the word. They have preconceived ideas and prejudicial notions about what they are being told. They will not only judge words and the truth of what is being told them, but also who is saying them. Think of the Jews who refused to listen to Christ because He was from Galilee. Even His own brothers didn’t believe Him. (John 7:6) Think about the language and tradition barriers that Ammon and his brothers had to deal with teaching the Lamanites. When he taught the king about God, the king didn’t know what he was talking about. My wife went on a mission to Thailand. When she taught a discussion about God to the Buddhists, they didn’t understand the notion of “God” as we understand it. To some degree there is a barrier of understanding between all people, even within families. Misunderstandings, prejudices, and pride always seem to get in the way of good communication.
The only way to really understand the truth of the words of another is through the principles taught in D&C 50:17-24.
“Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God. And again, he that receiveth the word of truth doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? If it be some other way it is not of God. Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”
The only way to know the truth of someone’s testimony is if two conditions are met: the teacher preaches with the Spirit of truth, and the listener, or receiver, receives it by the Spirit of truth. If either the preacher or the hearer is not plugged in to the spirit, then the three fold filter will be in place, and the value of the testimony or information shared and received will be tainted at some level, if not on all three levels.
So how do you tell if you are receiving the word of truth by the Spirit of truth? Many religious people assume that if they hear the word from a religious leader that they believe is inspired, then the word is true. Or, they may dismiss out of hand the word of truth by the Spirit of truth because it didn’t come from their religious leader. This is one of the dangers of belonging to a religion. It makes people lazy. It is a good thing that we have to struggle and strain to obtain every morsel of truth so that we can discern light from darkness, and not be dependent upon any other person, except Christ. As Paul writes in First Thessalonians, “Prove all things;” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Oliver Cowdery experienced early on that obtaining light and truth is not handed to us without effort. The Lord told him: “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” (D&C 9: 7). The Lord told him that he needed to study it out first. There was some effort required on his part to obtain truth and light. The twelve apostles learned the same thing from the Lord when they asked why they could not cast out a devil. He told them that they would sometimes be required to fast and pray in order to exercise priesthood effectively (Mark 9:28-29). Something more than asking is required.
Several weeks ago in a fellowship meeting, a sister was relating her experiences in discovering truth and light. At one point she said, “I prayed to know the truth, but like most everything in my life, the Lord did not answer.” I wondered about that statement, and how many of us think that the Lord purposefully withholds light and truth from us. This idea, though, is not supported by scripture. Mathew 7:7-8 has the Lord teaching, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you: For everyone that asketh receiveth;” How badly do you want to know truth? What are you willing to sacrifice to receive an answer? The Lord answers our prayers, but, sometimes these things come only after much prayer and fasting. I think we must prove our sincerity and our resolve to obtain truth and light.
I want to relate a personal experience to you that happened a long time ago on my mission in New Zealand. This is a story of how my testimony began and what I had to do to obtain it. It wasn’t enough for me to believe that other people , i.e., leaders, family members, and people I looked up to, knew that the Gospel was true. This is a story of how I obtained for myself the knowledge that Joseph Smith was a prophet and translated the Book of Mormon. This is not a particularly unique story, thousands have had similar experiences. My purpose is to demonstrate that the Lord requires sacrifice from us in order to obtain some important truths.
I had been on my mission for six months when we had stopped for lunch at our “flat”. There came a knock at our door and I went to open it. Opening the door I found a Baptist lay preacher who was tracting, knocking on doors in the area. I invited him in and we had a good gospel discussion; nothing confrontational. He invited us to his home so we made an appointment for my companion and I to visit one evening later in the week.
We went to the man’s house as arranged with the intention of teaching the first discussion. We did teach him some of the concepts, but our discussion turned primarily into a conversation about Joseph Smith. He brought out a book that was a biography of Joseph Smith and said I should read it. He offered to lend it to me. I thought, “Okay, it will be a good excuse for us to come back and meet with him.” The book was titled, “No Man Knows My History”, by Fawn Brodie. I am thinking by now that the man was not really interested in hearing about the LDS church, he was interested in converting us! But being competitive and cocky by nature I saw it as a challenge rather then saying no thank you and moving on.
I read the book. Never had I been confronted with writings that contradicted the official story of the origin of the LDS Church with such believability. The author was a well known writer and her writing was not at all in the same tone as other anti-Mormon literature I had read. Most of the anti-Mormon literature I had been exposed to before this was just so much drivel that was motivated by pure ignorance and hatred of Joseph Smith and the LDS church. This book was something different, it was believable, and was written by a Latter Day Saint. The author tells the story of a confidence man, Joseph Smith, who did not have any prophetic gifts nor contact with the Heavens. He was motivated by poverty to fabricate a story to delude gullible people into supporting him. Things just got out of hand. It became bigger then he was able to control. Her explanations were so plausible and believable. I was not prepared for the anguish and mental pain that reading this book was causing me. If this book was true, my purpose for being on a mission was based on lies. If Fawn Brody was right, My mission was a farce and I should give it up and go home.
I agonized over this for several days, trying to figure out what to do. I prayed and fasted like I had never done before. I actually felt that life for me could not go on, certainly not like I had it planned out. I thought about what I was going to tell the mission president. I was going to have to tell him that the church was false and there was no point in my continuing as a missionary. I pleaded with the Lord to know the truth. I had to know. It seemed at the time it was more important to me then life itself.
After several days of being in this truly depressed state, I was having a personal prayer to end a fast before going out on a teaching appointment. I asked the Lord, “How can I teach someone about the church and bear my testimony if I don’t know it is true myself? Was Joseph Smith a true prophet?” After I finished my prayer I stood up and was struck by lightning. Or at least it seemed like lightning. I was completely over come by a feeling of pure love, it was like electricity. There is no other way to describe what was happening. And then I heard the words distinctly in my mind, “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. Just as he declared he was.”
That experience saved me. I learned several other things from that experience besides the knowledge that Joseph Smith was what he said he was and that the Book of Mormon was translated by him from ancient plates given to him by an angel. I also learned that the Lord answers prayers and that sometimes we have to plead and exercise great faith to have those prayers and questions answered. Sometimes one has to desire answers so much that you would be willing to do almost anything.
Do you want to know the truth of what I am saying? Do you want to know the truth of what any person is telling you or testifying to you? What are you willing to do to have your prayers answered?