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  He just finished writing his 8th (I think) unpublished book since his retirement, this one titled “Questions for the Next Life” in which he poses a few hundred questions he is looking forward to getting answers to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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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