My comments today are mostly directed toward young people. But I’m going to talk to you like adults and I’m going to be as plain and frank as I know how to be. I want to talk to you about your testimonies.
It seems to me that testimonies are a bit like baseball. In a baseball game, you’ll find yourself at times surrounded by teammates out in the field or safe in the dugout together—yet there come moments when you stand all alone at the plate. Just you and the pitcher and nobody to lean on. Others may cheer you on, but nobody but you will be able to stop that fastball before it crosses over for a strike—or hits you in the ear.
Similarly, each of you will need to make your own independent decisions regarding matters of faith, testimony, and the Church.
The Church is True?
I worry about the oft-repeated statement, “I know the Church is true.” It is said positively, of course, and with good intentions. It affirms (albeit vaguely) an acceptance of the Church. But I worry that it creates a framework for judging the Church unfairly—because if it’s “true,” it must then all be true, and if, then, anything or anyone is amiss, then the whole thing must apparently, after all, not be true.
Let me give some examples:
- The Church teaches doctrines that are true. Does that mean that every statement made by every Church leader in the history of the Church is correct? No. Does it mean you’ll never hear a false comment or teaching in a Church meeting on Sunday? No. But does an incorrect statement in the classroom or even from the pulpit negate the fact that the Church teaches doctrines that are true? No, it does not.
- Or… The Church is led by apostles and prophets who receive revelation and inspiration. That is true. Does that mean that God provides for them a constant stream of highly specific, detailed instructions such that their own judgment and biases never contribute to their decisions and they never err? No. But does an erroneous judgment, even by a Church leader, negate the fact that the Church is led by inspired men who hold legitimate priesthood keys that can bless you and your family? No, it does not.
- One more… The Church teaches that we should love our neighbors—that we should be Christ-like and full of charity. That is true. Does that mean that no church-going neighbor of yours will ever be judgmental, thoughtless, insensitive—or maybe just flat-out rude and offensive? No. But does a church-going neighbor’s poor behavior mean the Church is a driver of civic unrest and therefore false? No, it does not.
The Church is a divinely inspired and divinely authorized institution run by humans. The humanity in the Church sometimes obscuring its divinity no more negates that divinity than clouds obscuring the sun reduce the importance of the sun.
In the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ, there are, as President Nelson recently taught, three great truths:
- We are, in a very literal sense, children of Heavenly Parents.
- Our Father in Heaven desires a covenant relationship with us wherein He and we commit to each other—in a very deep way through which the greatest blessings of eternity become available to us.
- Jesus Christ helps us overcome the issues that prevent us from completing that covenant path on our own if we will receive and follow Him.
Critical to those great truths is this: The Church plays an essential role in connecting us with these truths, as it is only through the ordinances of the restored priesthood that we can make the necessary covenants with our Father and formally commit in the Savior’s way to discipleship to Him.
A loving Heavenly Father, the Covenant Path, and Jesus as our Savior. These three things are each true and correct. I “know” that through a host of experiences. But your turn to stand at the plate, largely by yourself, is coming. You will need to know for yourself. So how do you find out?
Let’s start with distinguishing between what Elder Corbridge calls the Primary and the Secondary questions—or, in other words, the “critically important” and the “important but not nearly critically so” questions. Let’s also acknowledge the “difficult” questions, which I think should get a category of their own.
The critically important, or “primary,” questions revolve around the three great truths just mentioned. Here they are again in a little different order and in the form of questions…
- Does God really exist, and, if so, what is the nature of my relationship with Him?
- Is Jesus really my Savior? Do I even need a Savior? If God is really a loving father, won’t he just forgive my mistakes anyway?
- Does the Church, in fact, play an essential role in my relationship with my Heavenly Father and the Savior? More specifically: Are the ordinances and covenants offered to all of humanity by the Church truly essential for me?
Those are the primary questions. Those are the ones you’ll need to answer.
“Secondary” questions include such things as:
- Where did the Book of Abraham come from?
- Why does the Book of Mormon talk about horses?
- Why isn’t every account of the First Vision identical?
- Why do changes in the Church sometimes coincide with social and political pressures?
- Why are temple ordinances similar to masonic rituals?
- Et cetera. It’s a long list.
For a person who is positively settled with the primary questions, the secondary questions are distantly secondary because answers to them come with relative simplicity—and because they are outside the core issues of our relationship with God. A person’s anxiety over the secondary questions will typically be proportional to their uncertainty regarding the primary questions.
Further, it is a myth that one must first answer the secondary questions before he or she can answer the primary questions. There is an easy answer to the Book of Abraham question, for example, but I don’t need to know it before I can conclude that God is my Father, that covenants matter, and that Jesus is my Savior.
What about what I would call the difficult questions? These include such things as:
- How can the Savior’s Church deny temple marriage to gay couples or transgender individuals—especially when Jesus, himself, during his life, championed those who were rejected by others?
- How do we explain polygamy—past and… future? And should we be worried about it?
- Why did the Church go for so long withholding priesthood and temple blessings from black people? Why did it go for any amount of time doing that?
These questions always—but today more than at any time in the history of the world, perhaps—strike at the very dead center of our sensibilities regarding equity, fairness, and justice—and that makes them more difficult. They are also difficult because any specific, Church-centered answers to them involve important unknowns.
If we can’t answer the primary questions positively, we will see these difficult issues as irreconcilable conflicts between the Church’s claim to priesthood authority and the virtue of equity.
If we can answer the primary questions positively, then, even though the difficult issues remain difficult, we will be willing to trust in a loving Heavenly Father who has a plan for His children—all of his children; we’ll be willing to trust in the power of an infinite Atonement; and we’ll be willing to trust in the merger of divine inspiration and human imperfection that both inform Church leaders—but with emphasis on the former.
(With regard to any question that seems difficult to us, it is important to remember that we don’t share the same perspective as Church leaders—and we definitely don’t share the same perspective as God.)
Gaining a Testimony
So, then, back to the important primary questions. How do I settle them and gain a testimony? I suggest you do five things.
First, take a positive approach. Too much skepticism that the world is round—or that the earth revolves around the sun—only impeded people’s ability to recognize the truth. The opposite of such a mistake, though—blind faith—is not the answer. We should most definitely be thoughtful! But a person’s approach to testimony must involve some desire and willingness to believe—and must include the fair and objective approach we should always take toward learning and truth-seeking.
Unless your name is Saul or Alma—and I don’t know any Sauls or Almas in our stake—an antagonistic approach to the question of the Church’s validity will only land you where you started. A desire to exercise faith—which Alma speaks of in the Book of Mormon—and an open mind are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Second, begin to learn how the Spirit communicates with you. The scriptures point out that the “voice” of the Spirit is still and small and gentle. It is not in the windstorm, the earthquake, or the fire. It is subtle. It is with you more often than you perhaps realize. It can speak to you in your mind and your heart. We experience the Spirit at different times in different ways and we are each different. It comes exceedingly seldom in an unmistakable vision or audible voice. It is quiet.
Why is this so? Why doesn’t God just speak loudly and unmistakably clearly to us? Because, I suppose, if He was going to do that, we might as well have just stayed with Him where He could personally instruct us. But we were separated from Him for a reason—to struggle and learn with agency and opposition and choices—and to learn to walk by faith. God will communicate with us, but not in a manner that imposes excessive influence over our agency.
Nevertheless, you can learn to discern—and constantly improve at discerning—both the presence and the absence of the Holy Ghost—especially as you strive to keep your baptismal covenant. For me, I would describe the Spirit best as feelings of love, clarity, and quiet approval. And I would describe the absence of the Holy Ghost as feelings of emptiness, negativity, and being alone.
Third, learn, ponder, and pray. Prayer is an essential element of seeking a testimony—but so is trying to understand what you’re praying about. You’ll need to study. Since billions of people and thousands of years haven’t settled the question of the Bible’s value, you’ll want to focus your studies on the Book of Mormon and on the words of living prophets. If those are true, then the Bible is also, even if not in every small detail.
Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” The Book of Mormon also tells that we should ask God if the Book of Mormon is true and that “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” This does not mean that we simply ask God a question and he drops down a note with the answer on it from heaven. You will need to work to discern an answer, the timing of which is uncertain.
Fourth, live the gospel. The importance of this cannot be understated. Jesus said, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or… [not]”. We should also place a lot of weight on this statement from Joseph Smith, who said that “a [person] would get nearer to God by abiding by [the] precepts [of the Book of Mormon], than by any other book.”
If you want to know if the Book of Mormon is true, you don’t need to stress over the secondary questions related to it, you need to live what it teaches. You won’t learn Spanish by speaking English and you won’t learn how to shoot a free throw by watching others do it. You’ll need to jump in. It is no small thing that the Book of Mormon is the “keystone of our religion.” Its power is most effectively unlocked when we try to live its teachings.
Fifth, consider the fruits of living the actual teachings of the Church—as opposed to misperceptions, misinterpretations, cultural flaws within the Church, or criticisms of the Church. What does the restored Church teach, encourage, and sometimes prod me to do? It tries to help me…
- Be a good husband
- Be a good father
- Be a good neighbor and a contributing citizen
- Serve others
- Develop Christlike attributes such as kindness, compassion, mercy, patience, and love
- Practice living by optimism, faith, and hope
- Be healthy—and become physically and emotionally self-reliant
- Strive for growth and improvement—while at the same time being kind and fair toward myself
- Seek learning
- Care for the poor and alleviate suffering
- Accept my value, potential, and lovability—and that of others
- Accept peace for the eventual resolution of the things that hurt or worry me
- And other good things.
One of the reasons the secondary questions are so distantly secondary is because—though they are often wielded as weapons of criticism against the Church—the strength of those weapons diminishes quickly in comparison to the good the Church brings about in the lives of individuals and families who embrace the Church’s actual teachings.
There are many good and important questions. Some are primary. I encourage you to settle the answers to those in your hearts and minds and then continue with them as you learn and grow.
- We do have a loving Father in Heaven.
- The covenants we make with Him through restored priesthood authority and ordinances are of utmost importance.
- Jesus Christ is our Savior.
I testify—from the basis of my own study, ponder, and prayer; my own interactions with the Holy Ghost; and the fruits I see born out in my life as I strive to keep my covenants—that God is our Father, Jesus is our Savior, and our Church-provided priesthood covenants matter, a lot, in our relationships to Them. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.