BoM 8: Personal Testimony, Personal Responsibility

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.

Day 39: A Personal Ministry

Alma 17:12-13, 16-18

MTC Nov 6I want to share some of the positive and joyful results of my mission––especially considering that this month I celebrated the tenth anniversary of entering the Missionary Training Center.

In 2007, nearing graduation from Brigham Young University, I listened to Bonnie D. Parkin speak at a regular Tuesday devotional. Her message on finding one’s personal ministry struck, thrilled, and terrified me. “Ministering involves extending charity—that pure love of Christ—to others, one person at a time. By doing so, we offer a kind, generous, peaceful, and pure heart.” I felt her message resonate with my spirit, telling me this was something I needed to do! She continued, “Opportunities to minister may come within the formal stewardship of a calling or assignment, or they may come as we spontaneously extend ourselves to someone in need” (Parkin, “Personal Ministry: Sacred and Precious,BYU Devotional [Feb 2007]). Spontaneously extend myself to someone in need?! For years I had feared reaching out in this way despite feeling the Spirit nudge me many times to do just that. I needed some courage and confidence in my ability to follow the promptings of the Spirit.

Four sons of Mosiah, filled with the pure love of Christ, left the comfort and safety of their Nephite community along with several other missionaries and traveled into the lands of the Lamanites hoping “that perhaps they might bring them unto repentance; that perhaps they might bring them to know of the plan of redemption” (Alma 17:16). They felt this incredibly strong conviction about Jesus Christ and the need for EVERYONE to know about Him and the Plan of Salvation. So much so that they risked their lives to go on this mission. The group, ministered to by Ammon (Alma 17:18), “took courage to go forth unto the Lamanites…trusting in the Lord (Alma 17:12-13, emphasis added). This is what I lacked!

One of the greatest blessings of my mission was developing the courage to act, the trust in the Lord to move forward with ANY assignment, the gumption to get out of my comfort zone, and the self-confidence to act on the promptings of the Spirit. The Lord provided me experience after experience to teach me these principles and help me develop these characteristics. I felt many times that God designed all these lessons to prepare me for my lifelong personal ministry. I see how He helped me on the path to becoming a reliable and effective instrument in His hands (Alma 17:9). And He taught me what it takes to be an excellent disciple of Christ. I’m not perfect in this by any means but the Lord also taught me how to further improve throughout my life. I wouldn’t trade those lessons for anything.

Day 38: Steps into the Darkness

Alma 8-14

Having finished Alma 14 today, I see a good moment to pause and reflect on two themes exemplified in Amulek’s experience as a reactivated church member and new missionary.

1. When God asks you to do something, He doesn’t give you every detail in advance.

Amulek says he had heard the call to repent and turn back to the Lord many times (Alma 10:6). He ignored it. But when God sent the angel with the brief message to receive into his home a hungry prophet of God, he acted (Alma 10:7). The brevity of the angel’s instruction to Amulek and the scarcity of information provided really stands out to me. Amulek acted with faith to follow the angel’s instructions. He expresses his faith to Alma upon their divinely directed encounter, stating simply, “I know that thou wilt be a blessing unto me and my house” (Alma 8:20).

What stands out to me is that Amulek likely had no idea what was going to be expected of him once he took this faith-filled step into the darkness. God didn’t include advance notice that he would be asked to “go forth and prophesy unto this people” (v. 29), nor did He provide lesson plans, a warning about how the people would react, or instructions for the coming days and weeks. The only instruction provided was, “Thou shalt receive [Alma]” (Alma 8:80; Alma 10:7).

God will extend many invitations to us over our lifetimes. Let’s be like Amulek and act in faith, knowing that whatever He asks will ultimately “be a blessing unto [you] and [your] house.”

2. Doing God’s will does not guarantee that you will be kept safe or avoid unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even dangerous situations.

I used to tell myself that if God had told me in advance everything I would experience on my mission, I never would have gone. And, yes, pre-mission me had a right to feel really nervous and scared about serving a mission. But I would never trade the joy I experienced helping others repent nor the covenant friendships I forged as a missionary.

The Book of Mormon doesn’t share much about Amulek’s state of mind or feelings about becoming Alma’s mission companion except to record that he willingly took his step into the darkness and faithfully acted on God’s invitation and instructions. The people we’re asked to serve in the places we’re asked to go have their agency. They are free to act as they want and see fit. When we accept an assignment from God to go serve, doing God’s will does not guarantee that people are going to be nice, welcoming, accepting, or even polite.

Amulek learned first hand about being rejected in the harshest ways possible: he and Alma were plotted against (Alma 10:13), he was called a liar (Alma 10:28), they were “bound with strong cords” (Alma 14:4), they were unjustly accused and illegally tried on false charges (Alma 14:5), they were forced to watch people they taught be burned alive (Alma 14:8-10), they were attacked and beaten multiple times (Alma 14:14, 20, 21, 24, 25), they were imprisoned while tied up with no clothes (Alma 14:17, 22), they were starved (Alma 14:22).

Just the potential for this kind of suffering while doing God’s work is reason enough for almost anyone to refuse an assignment. But when we really believe deep in our souls that God is real, that His work is vital, that the Plan of Salvation is in effect, that the human race has the opportunity to live with God forever OR be cast off to suffer eternally, then the potential for earthly suffering on God’s errand takes on a whole new perspective. Taking the chance on potential (temporary) suffering to bring even one person to Christ has to be worth it.

God may or may not protect you while you are on His errand, He won’t interfere with anyone’s agency, you may or may not have to go to dangerous places, you may or may not be required to have many unpleasant and uncomfortable experiences; but God does guarantee blessings, He does promise that His righteous works will be fulfilled, He does promise that suffering and misery are temporary, that they will end and be replaced with peace and joy.

Elder Holland spoke to this principle years ago in October 1999 General Conference. I’ll end with his closing words:

I testify that God lives, that He is our Eternal Father, that He loves each of us with a love divine. I testify that Jesus Christ is His Only Begotten Son in the flesh and, having triumphed in this world, is an heir of eternity, a joint-heir with God, and now stands on the right hand of His Father. I testify that this is Their true Church and that They sustain us in our hour of need—and always will, even if we cannot recognize that intervention. Some blessings come soon, some come late, and some don’t come until heaven; but for those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they come. (Holland, “An High Priest of Good Things to Come,General Conference (Oct 1999.)

Day 36: Working With Our Weaknesses

Alma 8:11-18

Alma the younger’s amazing conversion from church-destroyer to High Priest over the Church gave him a unique perspective on and zeal for God’s work. His first attempt at preaching in Ammonihah dampened his spirits, though, and he was prepared to turn his back on the city. But as soon as the angel commanded him to return and try again, he went, no questions asked.

One of the things I love in this anecdote from Alma’s ministry is the poignant lesson about how the Lord works with us to fulfill His work, even with our weaknesses. When Alma returned to the city (by another way––there’s a lesson in that as well), “he was an hungered” (v. 19). Remembering that hunger is a condition of our mortal bodies, Alma probably could have continued working, being strengthened by God. But the Lord worked with Alma’s weakness (hunger) in that moment to progress His work of bringing salvation to all His children. The man he asked for food was reactivated and became a powerful missionary.

I experienced this same kind of mercy as a brand new missionary one evening in a northern European city in January. It was freezing cold, we were miles from our apartment, and I was exhausted in more ways than one. We waffled in that difficult period of the day where you have just enough time to make a few more contacts (but not teach a full lesson) and still arrive home for missionary curfew. My trainer asked for suggestions. I was so tired that I responded, “let’s just go home.” She thought for a moment and then agreed. So we headed out of the train station toward the ferry. Moving with the crowd, we approached a tram shelter. We were about to pass when a man called out to us in English. We looked for the speaker and discovered a man smiling and waving at us. He had traveled from the Philippines as a worker for a cruise line and was a member of the Church. He had not seen his family in six months nor had he been able to attend Church. He was overjoyed to see us and felt his spirit renewed.

Even in the depths of my exhaustion and eagerness to get home, the Lord worked through my weakness to perform a miracle. Through us He ministered to one of His children and accomplished His work.

Day 35: Don’t Be Afraid to Stand Out

Alma 5:57

I used to take pride in being a chameleon. I could walk into rooms without anyone noticing I was there, I could blend in with locals when I traveled out of the country. I kept my head down and tried not to stand out; I felt really safe.

As Alma preached to the people in Zarahemla while setting the Church in order, he admonished the members of the Church, “be ye separate.” In both the Old and New Testaments, the people of God are described as a “peculiar people” (cf. Deuteronomy 14:2 and 26:18, OT; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9, NT). Modern prophets have continued citing this phrase to describe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I think about this sometimes and how God intends for His people to stand out so that others see something different about us and wonder what they might be missing in their own lives.

Backtrack to my mission when one of my companions jaywalked everywhere we went. Late for the tram? Jaywalk to catch it just in time. Need to go to an appointment across this busy road but the nearest crosswalk is minutes away? Jaywalk. When I asked her about this habit, she said, “everyone here does it.” One thing I had learned as a missionary, we were not supposed to do and be like everyone else. We needed to stand out instead and use the crosswalks if for no other reason than nobody else did.

Alma’s admonition to “be ye separate” does not mean to hole away in bunkers until the Second Coming (think of my “chameleon” attitude), completely removing ourselves from society. We are supposed to separate ourselves from sin. We are meant to participate in our communities. But we should be noticeably different in how we present and carry ourselves, how we interact with others (in Christ-like ways), and in our level of honesty and integrity. Standing out can be so uncomfortable but it is becoming increasingly important to do so.

Day 30: Trusting in the Lord

Mosiah 21-24

There is so much to admire in Alma the elder who risked his life to try and save Abinadi, then defied King Noah to teach the Gospel, and eventually become a prophet in turn. Mosiah 23-24 present a neat parallel to Mosiah 21-22. These chapters compare how Alma’s people deal with the same challenges as Limhi’s people, both groups having become client kingdoms in servitude to the Lamanites. Where Limhi’s people feared the Lamanites and tried to fight their way out of bondage, Alma’s people replaced their fear of man with trust in the Lord, prayers for help, and patience in His plan.

Nine and a half years ago my mission companions and I created a lesson based on Mosiah 24:13-16. The message really touched our friend (for whom we originally planned the lesson): she identified with Alma’s people in bondage (she was in advanced schooling at the time and studying for a difficult exam), and felt strengthened by their example of faith in God, the promise of eventual deliverance, and the help God provided in the midst of their trial while waiting for the right timing.

What I really want to share, though, is that as our week progressed, we taught this lesson no less than four other times in different appointments. It seemed everyone we met with needed this message that week! I have seen this happen in other settings where multiple people I know are going through the same or similar difficulties at the same time. But I also want to highlight the universality of the challenges explored in Mosiah 21-24. So much of mortality is a fight against bondage. Our spirits are in bondage to sin, our mortal bodies are predisposed to doing things that create additional scenarios of bondage/limitation of freedom. My takeaway from Mosiah 21-24 is that I can either rely on my own strength to free myself (like Limhi’s people), or I can ask God for help and trust in His mercy and timing (like Alma’s people). Both groups were eventually freed but Alma’s group shines in their faith, patience, attitude, and the comparative ease with which they succeeded––all because they trusted in God and waited for Him to work His miracles.

Day 25: Choose to Believe

Mosiah 8:20-21

O how marvelous are the works of the Lord, and how long doth he suffer with his people; yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them!

Yea, they are as a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd, and scattereth, and are driven, and are devoured by the beasts of the forest.

In my quest to become a disciple of Jesus Christ (to be serviceable and obedient), I have noticed my own predilection for contrariness. A big part of me fights against being obedient, following the promptings of the Spirit, and desiring godly things enough to act. For example, I knew I needed to serve a mission for a long time before I could bring myself to even fill out the paperwork. As I tried to bring myself around to this personal commandment, I began praying for a desire to serve. Like Ammon exclaimed to Limhi in Mosiah 8:20, the Lord suffered long with me: He was patient and kind and helped me prepare to serve well even as I “fled” from Him.

The Prophet Brigham Young taught that sometimes members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “live far beneath [their] privileges” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. by John A. Widtsoe [1954], 32; qtd in New Testament Teacher Manual, Lesson 30). Certainly Ammon thought so of humankind in general! And while God will suffer long with us because He loves us, if we want to learn the mysteries of God, gain wisdom, and achieve our greatest potential, we have to choose to believe, we have to act out of an inner desire to learn and achieve.

I know from experience that the path of discipleship is no cake walk. Maybe you, like me, “tremble inwardly at what may be required” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Consecrate Thy Performance”, General Conference [Apr. 2002]). But, whatever you do, don’t run away! Choose to believe, pray for a desire to believe if you need to. The Lord will suffer long with you and He will help you not only become your best self, but He will help you achieve marvelous good in this life and receive eternal life in the next.