Nurturing Faith and Testimony
[Given by Chris Juchau at Stake Conference, October 2015.]
When I was 16 years old, my brother returned from his mission to Montreal, Canada. We had shared a room together for many years. Curt is one part genius, one part (more than one, actually) Christ-like model, and one part absent-minded. He would come home after a date when I was 12 or 13 years old and sound asleep, turn the light on in our room, which was right in my face since I was on the top bunk, and then go off to brush his teeth and get ready for bed, forgetting he had left the light on. He would fall asleep sometimes while kneeling at his bed saying his prayers.
On this night, though, it came time for us to get to bed and since he hadn’t been around for two years and both of us had changed a fair amount during that time, we weren’t talking much—probably because neither of us knew what to say. So I asked him a question: “Curt, tell me what the most important thing was that you learned on your mission.” He paused and thought and finally said something like this: “I have learned that we need to focus on the very most basic principles of the gospel—on faith and repentance. We have enough to worry about with those things; we don’t need to strain at doctrines that are less basic.”
I have given that statement a lot of thought in the 33 years since then. It came in some contrast to the sometimes edgy and always inquisitive mind of my father, another great man, who enjoys pondering aspects of the gospel that we know little about. He just finished writing his 8th (I think) unpublished book since his retirement, this one titled “Questions for the Next Life” in which he poses a few hundred questions he is looking forward to getting answers to when he gets to the other side. Questions like “How long were the days of the creation?” and “What, exactly, are cherubim?” I will always be grateful to have been raised in an atmosphere of questions and learning. I believe that has provided many advantages for me in my life.
Meanwhile, I am constantly reminded of the importance of my brother’s statement about focusing on the very most basic principles of the gospel. The opportunities I have had to observe, learn from, and counsel with others continues to affirm for me the importance of that statement. I would like to talk today for a few minutes about the importance of nurturing two critically important and basic things: our faith and our testimonies.
Why are Faith and Testimony so critical?
Three things come to mind…
- A testimony is a great blessing as we navigate life on earth. The prophet Mormon speaks of belief, faith, and hope providing “an anchor to the souls of men, which make them sure and steadfast.” The apostle Paul talks about being “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” Mormon, too, spoke of being “as a vessel” “tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor.” Faith and testimony provide safety, stability, direction, steadiness, and confidence. Faith and testimony make for homes built on rocks rather than on sand.
- If it is true that Jesus Christ is really our Savior and that legitimate priesthood keys are found in the restored Church—and I testify that those things are true—then great blessings in eternity, including the possibilities of exaltation and eternal families, hinge on the faith we exercise in those truths. Many of our eternal rewards depend upon our exercising faith and testimony in this life.
- Life is a test and your testimony is very likely to be tested, either directly to challenges about the validity of the Church’s priesthood authority or indirectly through adversity that causes you to wonder where God is and why things are not less unfair and more the way you feel like they should be. You and I will be best off if, at the time of our most difficult testing, we remain true to the faith and testimonies we have received and exercised—and, if we in fact, build on them. It is important to remember that when we refer to life as a test, it is not God being tested to see if He will give us what we want when we want it; it is us being tested to see if we will turn to Him, trust in Him, rely on Him, and move forward in faith when we face the greatest adversity.
Now, with those reasons for why faith and testimony are important as background, let me briefly discuss four important principles associated with faith and testimony.
First: Testimonies are not binary. They are not something that you either have or do not have. Testimonies exist in degrees: from developing testimonies to powerful testimonies and everything in between. Faith, similarly, can be exercised in large or small degrees or somewhere in between.
Likewise, it is not true that the testimony you have, to whatever degree you have it, will always be there. Testimonies grow or they wither. They wax or they wane.
Testimonies seldom come in a momentary brilliant flash; nor always through an intense burning in the bosom. However they come, they don’t last forever on their own. Testimonies are nurtured or neglected each day. Like the sycamore trees that Elder Ballard recently referenced for us, testimonies grow when they are watered; faith expands when it is exercised. Testimonies wither when they are neglected; faith weakens when it is not placed into action. Testimonies usually come and are strengthened slowly: “line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little and there a little.”
If you are nurturing your testimony on a daily basis, then keep going! If you are not, you are placing too much at risk and I urge you to make the necessary changes because the testing of your testimony is very probably coming.
Second: It is not enough to have a testimony; it is also important to have a reason (or reasons) for having a testimony and to know what those reasons are. Peter admonished us: “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” Especially in those moments when your faith and testimony may feel challenged, it is important for you to remember and know the reasons why you exercised faith and expressed testimony in the first place.
I do not think it can be over-emphasized that Latter-day Saints neither believe in blind faith nor in a head-in-the-sand approach to our faith. We believe that those who find are those who seek and that those who receive are those who ask. We believe that answers to prayers come both to our hearts and our minds. We believe in using reason. “Let us reason together,” the Doctrine and Covenants invites.
It is interesting that we refer to those who are actively exploring our church, not as “ignorants” but as “investigators.” Those of us who were born into the Church should be investigators and active learners, ourselves, and not “ignorants.” Those who study and learn, build their houses on rocks. Those who don’t, build theirs on sand.
Note that when I refer to study and learning, I am not referring to strictly academic exercises at all. This type of study and learning must involve our hearts and spirits in addition to our minds. The things of the Spirit are learned by the spirit. Spiritual truths are revealed through the Spirit and there is no way around that that I know of. Our reasons for having testimonies and exercising faith should be supported by experiences of the spirit, the heart, and the mind.
Third: The beginning of faith and testimony is desire – and that means agency. Alma taught clearly with his analogy of planting a seed that the very first step to faith is desire, specifically, a “desire to believe.” When Moroni talks about praying to God about the Book of Mormon he refers to “a sincere heart” and “real intent.” Testimony begins by choosing to want to believe. Faith grows when, once believing or choosing to believe, we choose to act on that belief.
I cannot believe in the restoration of priesthood authority or in the divinity of the Savior if I do not choose to at least want to believe in them.
Neither faith nor testimony is comprised of a “perfect knowledge.” This Alma also teaches clearly in his analogy. He said, “if a man knoweth a thing, he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.” He goes on to distinguish between knowing things through evidence we’ve accumulated and having a perfect knowledge of the whole matter, which renders faith unnecessary.
Does exercising agency with imperfect knowledge mean that faith and testimony come from ignorance or unsubstantiated choices? As Paul would say, “God forbid!” My choice to believe—or my choice to want to believe—simply opens the door, so my heart and mind may be receptive to evidences, both practical and spiritual, which allow my faith and testimony to be increasingly built on a foundation of genuine evidence: spiritual and practical and logical.
Until our faith grows into a perfect knowledge, however—which may not be very soon, considering that we came to earth to learn to exercise agency and faith together—agency and desire will remain essential elements of our faith and testimonies. If they don’t, we will lose our faith and our testimonies.
It is helpful to remember what the Savior taught Thomas, who insisted that he must see with his own physical eyes and touch with his own physical hands or he would refuse to believe. (This in spite of the fact that he already had many very good reasons to believe.) To him the Savior said, “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” I think the Savior is saying here that more blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.
Lastly, let me suggest that there are two indispensable elements to developing a testimony and building faith.
One is to consistently seek two-way communion with God through the Holy Ghost. We do this by hearing and studying His words in scriptures and the words of both living and ancient prophets. We do it by praying and then paying attention to the thoughts and feelings we receive. We seek to become acquainted with the feelings of the Spirit and to be ready and alert that we might recognize them when present.
The other is to live the teachings of the Savior as we receive them through scripture, through living prophets, and through personal revelation. Jesus said that those who “do His will shall know.” I cannot expect to truly commune with God when I live patterns in my life that are contrary to His teachings. If, however, I seek communion with God and I strive sincerely to live with diligence the principles He is communicating to me, I will come to know—typically, “line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little and there a little.”
Over time, the evidence mounts.
There are, in fact, things that I know. I can “give an answer to every man that asketh… a reason of the hope that is in [me].” There may be many things that you and I don’t yet know, as pointed out by my father’s book, for example. But if we consistently commune with God, speaking to Him and striving to listen—and if we do as He teaches, we will build a foundation of testimony sufficient to generate patience for the things we don’t yet know.
I testify that I know that Jesus is our Savior; that peace, goodness, salvation, and patience are through Him; that this Church is led by Him through living prophets and apostles on the earth who hold all necessary and genuine priesthood keys through which we can both make and receive valid covenants with God. Mine is not a perfect knowledge, to be sure, but my choice to believe is broadly and deeply substantiated by things that I have experienced, things that make sense to me, things that I have observed, things that I have felt, and therefore things that I claim with confidence to know.
May you and I consistently exercise a desire to believe, commune with God, and live our lives in such a way that our exercise of faith will be rewarded with greater spiritual knowledge. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
On Mental Health
[Given by Emily Juchau at the Back-to-School Fireside for Parents, August 2015.]
The Juchau family doesn’t believe in “grounding.” When we get in trouble, we have to speak at stake events.
I’d like to start out by telling you a happy story. About ten months ago, my family went on a brief trip to Disneyland. And that’s the end of the happy part of the story; it’s all terrible from here on out. When you go to Disneyland, you don’t really expect to leave with the kind of life lessons you can talk about in church, but that’s just a reminder that horrible things can happen to you anywhere. Constant vigilance.
Anyway, we were all looking forward to the trip, because it’s Disneyland, the alleged “happiest place on Earth.” I was especially excited because my job was and is pretty high-stress. Disneyland seemed like the perfect way to de-stress, especially considering that I’d been feeling anxiety for about a month before the vacation. Just little, uncomfortable moments when I experienced fear when there was nothing to be afraid of, but it was manageable, and I figured that by getting out of Utah for a while I might also get out of my own head.
To my eternal chagrin—and this is an example of the kind of classic irony that would make my life a great sitcom—the opposite happened. Instead of feeling better, I felt worse, and two days into our trip, while we were standing in line for a ride, at Disneyland, I experienced my first-ever full-fledged panic attack.
It was horrible. I was weak and nauseated and cold—my whole body was shaking, and I thought I might faint or throw up or drop dead. It was so terrifying that my parents took me out of the park to a nearby Urgent Care. There, the nurses took samples of my blood and an EKG, and the doctor diagnosed me with a basic panic disorder. I remember that he came into the room where I was waiting with my parents to receive this information, and he said, “Well, Emily, what in the world are you so worried about?”
At the time, I was too ill to think clearly. If I’d been in my right mind, I may have responded, “Well, doctor, I’m a junior in college studying English in a world where an English degree won’t get you anywhere. The cost of tuition is rising, and so are nationwide unemployment rates. I work in a field that is shrinking more and more by the minute. I don’t know why I’m shaking; I don’t know why I want to vomit; I wish my body would remember how to breathe. Meanwhile the Ebola virus is running rampant on the other side of the world, earthquakes ravage and ruin lives in Chile, China, and Nepal, and you can’t even go to a movie theater or a first grade classroom without wondering whether you’ll get shot. What in the world, doctor, shouldn’t I be worried about?”
What I actually said was something like “Ebola and stuff.” So he prescribed Xanax, and I spent the last two days of our vacation in a drugged stupor.
I wish I could say that everything’s been uphill from there, but that isn’t true. Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, I can take a little white pill every morning and feel just like normal. But it took a while to find the correct dosage, and until then I continued having occasional panic attacks, sometimes at home, sometimes at work, sometimes in class. Sometimes I still have moments of anxiety. I never found a good therapist, and in fact it’s nearly impossible to schedule a first-time appointment fewer than four months in advance, which ought to tell you exactly how prevalent my problem, and problems like mine, are.
Mental illness, I think, isn’t a topic we’re very comfortable with, despite how widespread it is. We live in a society that stigmatizes it. We know how to sympathize with cancer patients and amputees, but we freeze up when we hear about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder or anxiety and depression. Our brains are our most important assets; when they fail, even if it’s only for a minute, we get very nervous. We don’t even want to talk about our own struggles with mental health, because we worry that we’ll seem crazy or needy or pathetic. Although we’re social creatures who require the acceptance and warmth of others, we believe that if we stay silent, our minds will heal themselves and we can return to normal independently.
I will be the first to tell you that there are wounds you can keep to yourself. Frankly, no one cares about a papercut—you put a Band-Aid on it, it’ll be all better within two days, and complaining won’t get you anywhere. But for some reason, we have the same attitude about mental health, and that’s about the dumbest move we could possibly make, because you can’t fix a disorder of the mind with a Band-Aid. A depressed person cannot simply square their shoulders and smile to feel better, and someone having a panic attack can’t just tell themselves to calm down. When I’m having a panic attack, believe me, I would like nothing more than to calm down. The problem is that my brain won’t let me.
The Shakespeare play Hamlet comes to mind, probably because I’m an English major and I’ve studied it about seven times in the last three years. Hamlet’s mental health is one of the most important conflicts of the play; he seems to be depressed and struggles with thoughts of suicide. Early on in the play, long before his famous “to be or not to be” speech, he outlines what he’s going through, from his father’s death to his mother’s rapid remarriage, to how horrible and betrayed it makes him feel. He wishes that he could explain these problems but feels he can’t. “Break, my heart,” he says, “for I must hold my tongue.”
He chooses, fatally, as it turns out, for himself and for his friends and family, to stay silent. Break, my heart, for I held my tongue.
My friends, we are not meant to suffer in silence. God did not make us social creatures only so we could deny ourselves and each other sympathy and aid in our times of greatest need. We don’t read of many instances of mental illness in the scriptures, but I am reminded of the moments leading up to the Atonement, when Christ requested that Peter, James, and John stay awake and pray while he went into the garden to do what would amount to the greatest and most difficult act in the fabric of our universe. While Luke focuses on Christ’s physical agony and the drops of blood like sweat from his every pore, Matthew lingers on his emotional state, writing that Christ was “sorrowful” and “very heavy.” It seems to me that Christ, when he was about to face the greatest possible pain known to the history of the world, felt the kind of depression and fear that can render us immobile. And although he was empowered with divine strength and courage, he asked for help. He wanted his friends. He needed his Father. That didn’t make him weak or pathetic or needy. It serves as a reminder to me every day that some things I cannot and should not do alone.
I urge you to be open about your mental health, with yourselves, with each other, and especially with your children. Kids sort of believe that adulthood means having the solution to every problem and never needing help, when in fact the opposite is true. It’s the hope of every parent that their child or children will grow up to be happy and healthy and successful, and I promise you that they will be happier, healthier, and more successful for having grown up in a home where mental illness isn’t a secret, where they have learned to respond to their own inner problems and to empathize with the problems of others.
Your kids are entering a new school year, whether they do so as college students, like me, or as teenagers or even as smaller children, and although I am not a parent, it is my incredible privilege to give you parenting advice anyway.
First, promote mental wellness in your homes. The first thing my physician told me when I visited him about my anxiety was that I should focus on following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting an appropriate amount of sleep. These steps are crucial. Our mental health is intertwined with our physical health. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, you know that the following day is usually miserable—lack of sleep makes us irrational and cranky. But the symptoms of sleep deprivation are immediate, whereas improper dieting and a lack of exercise may take more time and have subtler results. Provide an example for your children by taking care of yourselves, and encourage them to do the same.
Our mental health is also related to our spiritual health. Does that mean every inactive church member suffers from depression? Not at all. Does that mean that having depression or anxiety makes you spiritually deficient? Again, no. When we talk of spirituality and spiritual health in the LDS Church, I think we often try to simplify it into an easy, understandable check list. Do you say your prayers every morning and night? Do you read your scriptures? Do you go to church on Sunday? Those steps are important, but remember that atheists can still be mentally healthy, and people who attend religious services every week can still be mentally unwell. What matters is your own, deeply personal relationship with God. If you feel that your spiritual health is suffering, despite checking everything off your to-do list, counsel with your bishop.
Remember also that you can’t force spirituality. If you have a child who is suffering a crisis of faith and no longer wishes to attend church, there are healthier ways—for you and your child—to deal with that than by compelling them to go. Be open and communicative with your children; listen to what they have to say; again, counsel with your bishop; and above all, remain faithful. Sometimes all we can do is wait.
Second, understand that adolescence is much harder now than it has ever been. In our economy, getting a job isn’t guaranteed. Understandably, we try to raise children to be hireable in an extremely competitive job market, so of course they have to go to college. But to get in to college, they’ll need a 4.0 GPA and a 36 on the ACT, not to mention AP classes and extracurricular activities. So your kids have to study whenever they’re not at mutual or after-school soccer practice or learning to play the harp or going to the literacy center to teach less privileged children how to read. And, they have to pay for college, while tuition costs are rising every year. So your kid also needs a part-time job, the second they turn sixteen and the state will let them work. And we wonder why they’re falling asleep in class!
As pressures rise, so does the importance of taking care of mental health. What’s the point of getting your kid into college if, after they get there, they struggle so much with depression or anxiety that it’s impossible to get out of bed in the morning to go to class? In our quest for a future, we’re forgetting the present, which should be unforgettable. Relax. Let your kids relax. Don’t expect perfection; don’t demand perfection. We all need a mental health day now and then, so I say, let the kids cut class and take them to a movie. Yeah, they need a job eventually, and they should get an education, but you can find a balance between building hireable adults and having happy children.
Third, mental illness isn’t always explainable. Sometimes it just happens. We might be doing everything medically possible to stay sane—exercising and sleeping well and eating correctly; we might be handling daily stresses in an appropriate way—but there can and will still be times in our lives and in the lives of our children when we simply become overwhelmed, the same way you might get the flu even if you’re washing your hands frequently. You can’t vaccinate yourself against mental illness. In Romans we read that “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience, experience; and experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed.” I love the use of the word glory. We don’t just deal with hard things, we welcome them; we’re proud of them. It’s hard to remind yourself that tribulation worketh patience, and patience, experience when you’re in the middle of a panic attack, or when you feel so depressed that you can’t get out of bed. It’s hard, when we’re feeling broken, to remember that, in the words of Jeffrey R. Holland, “we chose to live in a fallen world where for divine purposes our pursuit of godliness will be tried again and again.” But we did choose this world, with all its tribulations, and for that we have great reason to hope.
Lastly, I ask you to take your children’s mental health very seriously. If your child came to you with a broken bone, you wouldn’t tell them to walk it off—you’d rush them to the hospital. Similarly, it is unacceptable to dismiss even the less evident signs of breakage in health as the result of hormones or teenage mood swings or just discouragement. Elder Holland says that depression, and here I will add that this could refer to any form of mental illness, is “an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively.” Depression and anxiety are not exclusive to adulthood. And even if it is just a mood swing, listen and learn. Validate their feelings. Express love and acceptance, no matter what.
Your children may not always tell you what they are going through. That’s the Band-Aid mentality. As a teenager, the last thing you want to do is ask for help from your parents; you want to prove that you’re independent and can fix it by yourself. That’s why it’s critical to be open about your own mental health, and to display love and acceptance for those who struggle with mental illness. You can also be on the look-out for warning signs, which include fatigue, insomnia, consistent aches and pains, difficulty concentrating, and changes in personality. Though there’s no easy fix for mental illness, you can help by offering comfort, educating yourself on what they’re going through, and ultimately seeking help from professionals.
Mental illness isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s not an indicator of spiritual deficiency; it is not God’s way of punishing us. It is just something that happens—in the broad spectrum of mental malfunctions, many, many things can go wrong. In Biblical times, mental illness was understood in terms of demonic possession—Christ healed many men and women who were “possessed” by devils, which probably simply meant that they struggled with their mental health.
As Christ offered healing then, so does he now. In the ninth chapter of John, Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath. It’s one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. It starts with Christ’s disciples indicating the blind man and asking, “Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
And here I might point out that you can substitute blindness with any infirmity, physical or mental. Who did sin, this child or his parents, that he was born with major depressive disorder? That he was born with crippling anxiety, or debilitating phobias, or compulsions, or manic-depressive mood swings? Who did sin?
“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
I can’t imagine being that man, being blind from birth, living in total darkness, believing that you’ll never see the sun, or the earth, or your loved ones’ faces. That you’ll never read, or walk in new places without help, or understand what people mean when they speak of color and light. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like, after a lifetime of blindness, to have an entire new world made accessible to you because one man stopped, and made clay, and rubbed it in your eyes. Sometimes mental illness can feel like total darkness, but I testify to you that He is the Light. He is the Way. He can open our eyes, and even if that’s not tomorrow, even if that’s not in the moment when we feel like we need it most, it will happen.
And until then, we live our flawed and broken lives so that the works of God should be made manifest in us, and we must remember that the paramount work of God was the Atonement of his Son, to which we have access every day. The Savior didn’t come here to save perfect people. He came here to save us, and for that reason, we need not be ashamed of our hope. He loves us; He died for us; He wants us to be happy, and He knows that long-term joy and divinity can only be achieved by doing hard things now. Our path may not always be easy, but the obstacles in our way are mere blips in the grand scheme of eternity, and with His help and grace, we can overcome them. Our future is so, so bright.
I testify of the love of our Savior and of our Heavenly Father. I testify that no matter what you are enduring, you are very much not alone. Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” So keep going. You will find that your Savior walks beside you. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.