One of the Come, Follow Me prompts for last week’s study of Mosiah 25-28 suggested that we discuss the importance of taking responsibility for our own testimonies. Chapter 26 identifies “the rising generation,” those who were children at the end of King Benjamin’s reign, did not understand his teachings and did not make the covenant along with their parents, and who chose not to believe and not to be baptized as they grew older. (See Mosiah 26:1-2, BoM.) Testimony, or belief, is the foundation for participation in a faith community.
Another great word for testimony is conviction. The older generation who, under King Benjamin, entered into a covenant with God to believe in Christ and take His name upon them, were convinced of the truth of King Benjamin’s words (see Mosiah 5:2-7, BoM). This conviction led them to behave in ways consistent with the teachings of their king and the diverse group of people became unified under the covenant. They had peace in their land, they welcomed strangers to join their community, they worked hard to serve each other. Each person who had made the covenant honored it individually and as a community of believers.
Years ago I sat in an ecclesiastical endorsement interview with my Bishop so that I could attend a church university. My bishop asked me to share my testimony. I shared typical statements of belief: I know the Church is true, I know Joseph Smith was the prophet of the Restoration, I know Jesus Christ lives, etc. When I finished, my bishop unforgettably stated, “that’s nice. That is a very simple testimony.” The paternalism dripping from these words offended me deeply. What’s wrong with my testimony, I fumed to myself? It’s a sincere testimony!
About six years later I discovered what my bishop meant. As I suffered through the first months of my mission, with my self-construct crumbling, facing rejection every day and feeling very isolated among colleagues who didn’t know or love me, I had to learn to rely on a personage who I believed in and whose existence I felt certain of, but with whom I had never had “real” experience.
You see, it turned out that I had been living the Gospel in a vacuum, following the teachings of the Church and keeping commandments in carefully controlled settings that presented almost no challenges to me or to my faith. I grew up in a sheltered home, was oblivious to many things in high school that could have given me some real life experience, attended a Church university where it was easy to keep Church standards and follow Church teachings, and then lived with my grandmother while I worked and prepared for my mission. Each situation certainly had its own challenges, but none of those challenges constituted the sort of rich environment that allows for deep testimony development or growth. I lived the Gospel but with very little opposition. Without realizing that I had created a controlled environment for myself, I made internal claims as to having overcome various personal weaknesses. In reality I hadn’t actually overcome anger management problems, I had only removed myself from situations that caused flare ups. I didn’t actually love other people like Christ does—I just created an environment for myself in which I could associate with people when and where I wanted to and love from a distance.
All of that changed on my mission where I was suddenly forced to live in an environment completely out of my control. I begged God to help me get out of the worst of the situations and then I developed a bitterness against Him for not removing the challenges. This was my first real experience grappling with faith and testimony. Did God really exist if I couldn’t feel His presence? Did He really exist if He didn’t answer my prayers right way or in the manner I expected?
As I endured and tried to process the various experiences of my mission, I began to learn profound truths about the nature of testimony and what it takes to truly believe, to be convinced and change one’s behavior to be consistent with those convictions. King Benjamin’s people became so convinced of their lost and fallen state—they felt that truth deeply—that they begged for a solution. They believed in Christ because they also felt deeply the truth that only He could save them. (See Mosiah 4:1-3, BoM.)
In my darkest moments as a missionary I relied on the basic “simple” truths I had learned as a teenager: Christ exists. I found a deeper connection to Him in my anguish and built personal strength to believe regardless of my circumstances. I learned how the Atonement is supposed to work in helping us change our “natural wo/man” tendencies to godly characteristics and behaviors—it’s a painful process that cannot happen in a vacuum! I needed opposition (2 Nephi 2:11, BoM) to challenge me, to allow me to confront my weaknesses and, with Christ’s help, practice behaving in better ways until my heart could be changed and I could “naturally” behave in godly ways; in other words, have my nature changed.
I experienced a new facet of God’s grace as part of this testimony-building experience. For several months on my mission my behavior towards my companions was nothing short of despicable. My self-construct or false identity was gone and I began behaving in my most “natural” way; it turned out that a really mean and judgmental person had been lurking beneath my façade (see Mosiah 3:19, BoM). Despite my awful behavior, however, I experienced how deeply Christ loved me and desired my improvement. He blessed me continuously with powerful experiences ministering to local members and investigators, He magnified my singing voice to touch people’s hearts, He helped me and my companions teach in unity with the Spirit, He saw the unspoken righteous desires of my heart and answered them in subtle and meaningful ways. I didn’t deserve any of it—I recognized that all too clearly—but the patience and love with which Christ ministered to me helped me begin changing my heart. As I experienced the power and depth of Christ’s love for every single person on Earth I began to see others with new eyes.
So, while I “knew” as a young person that God is real and that Jesus Christ is my Savior, I did not have the experiential knowledge that makes for a deep or multi-faceted testimony. Not until I followed spiritual promptings to serve a mission and had to take responsibility for my spiritual life, did I begin to build true conviction.
The message I most wanted to share with my children this week is the importance of taking responsibility for their personal testimonies. We discussed different experiences they could have as children that will help them build their testimonies. I can teach them simple Gospel truths, simple enough that they can understand (see Mosiah 26:1, BoM); but I also need to invite them to take action to find out for themselves if and how those principles are true and what that truth means for them. This is the locus of belief or faith.
As a parent I want to create a safe environment in which my children can learn and grow in both secular and spiritual knowledge, but I also want them to have significant life experiences earlier than I did that will help them build deep and abiding convictions in God’s literal existence, His awareness of them, the worth of souls, and Jesus Christ’s infinite love and ability to help us all become exalted individuals and families.