The question is how do we testify. I have come to feel that our formulaic “I know …”does not serve as well as we would hope. In a discussion, it stops the conversation. We are announcing that our belief is highly personal and therefore not subject to examination. The listener is likely to feel okay, you have your belief; I hope you enjoy it. He or she may even feel we protest too much. No one ever says “I know this table exists.” The opening “I know” may function like the word “undoubtedly;” it conveys the opposite of what it purportedly means.
An experience a few years back led me to believe another kind of testimony is more effective, but it is a kind of testimony we have not necessarily prepared ourselves to bear.
I was asked to teach a missionary preparation class to a group of high school seniors one summer. I spent nearly a month rehearsing them in how to explain the Book of Mormon–not an elaborate explanation, just a simple description of its nature. I told them that when school began I wanted them to invite their non-member friends to a Sunday brunch to try out their skills. They could tell the friends they were going on missions and wanted to experiment.
The Sunday came and two girls showed up. The boys did their job–quite miserably I must say–and then one extremely acute young woman asked, “what does this book mean to you personally.” She was less interested in what the book contained than how it had affected their lives. They were all tongue-tied, but I have never forgotten the question.
The question points to the kind of testifying we should be doing. How precisely does the Gospel affect our lives. I am not thinking of vague abstractions but what specifically do we value in the Church. A general, one-size-fits-all answer won’t do. We need something concrete and highly personal. We have to look at ourselves and ask what really makes a difference. Occasionally someone will ask why is it that we believe in Joseph Smith or the Church. We should have a convincing, genuine, personal answer ready to hand. The answer should be rooted in our personality and our autobiography. At its best it will include incident.
Sitting in the dark early one morning, three thoughts came to me as starters.
1. Elementary discipline. I am grateful I don’t have to fight against tobacco, alcohol, extra-marital sex. My Mormon upbringing excludes all those debilitating addictions.
2. Opening to the spiritual. We are taught to pray and seek inspiration. We are told to think of Christ in our everyday lives. These teachings have developed a side of my nature I might have otherwise overlooked. I feel in touch with powers beyond myself–and within myself.
3. A reality anchor. My natural frame of mind is skepticism, not simply about God but about every kind of reality. I am inclined to believe that every form of belief including mathematics or the stone we kick is socially constructed and not necessarily really real. The scriptures provide me with words I am ready to bet my life on.
One and two above are probably commonly shared. Number three and others I might name are more idiosyncratic. If I am ever called to the High Council I may organize a sacrament meeting around calling people from the congregation to name one concrete, personal thing they like about the church. I trust you will be ready when I come to your ward.