Zelophehad’s Daughters

An Experiential Testimony

Posted by Seraphine

I’ve never had the standard testimony experience. You know, the one that the missionaries promise investigators: if you pray about the Book of Mormon (or the church or Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling), the spirit will witness its truth to you. That isn’t to say that I haven’t prayed about all of these things. I’ve prayed about the Book of Mormon, the church, and Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, but the spirit has never “manifested the truth” of it through a burning of the bosom, or a feeling of peace, or a still small voice, or any of the usual standards.

I do have a testimony, though. I’ve just gained it through a lot of obedience to commandments and through various experiences with church doctrines and practices. I have a testimony of the law of tithing, which is based on blessings that came from paying tithing when I didn’t have enough money to pay my bills. I have a testimony of the Word of Wisdom, which is based on my realization that by following it I have a healthier body than I would have been able to otherwise (I have a number of long-term health problems). I have a testimony of the divine power that resides in the temple, which is based on some really profound and powerful experiences I have had there. I have a testimony of reading the scriptures and praying, which is based on the joy and peace and knowledge that doing these things regularly has brought to my life.

This means my testimony is somewhat piecemeal–it emphasizes particulars rather than the whole. I can’t testify the church is “true” because I have had no testimony experiences that speak to me of the truth of the church as a whole. Instead, I can bear witness that individual doctrines and practices of the church hold truth and have blessed my life.

Another interesting consequence of my experiences is that my testimony is practice-based rather than idea-based. As many of my comments and posts on this blog have probably revealed, there’s a lot in this church that doesn’t make sense to me on an intellectual level. I’ve prayed for understanding and answers, but they seem to be slow in coming. For whatever reason, God hasn’t seen the need to clear up my doubts and confusion, which means my observations of ideological, doctrinal, and discursive inconsistencies in the church pile up at a much faster rate than they are resolved.

Yet despite all my expressions of doubt and complaint over these inconsistencies, my testimony remains. My life echoes John 7:17: “If any man do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” My life is better because of my obedience, and I see God’s hand in that. And when I am honest with myself, I realize that it’s more important to be obedient to commandments that make my life better than to have all my questions answered now; I am going through an experiential process that is making me a more Christ-like person. It’s okay if I don’t understand everything, or if God doesn’t doesn’t see fit reveal the “truth” of certain things to me, along the way.

14 Responses to “An Experiential Testimony”

  1. 1.

    Seraphine, I’m not sure you are really outside the mainstream in having an “experiential testimony.” I think what you describe is, in fact, how most people come around to whatever level of commitment they have to the Church as an institution.

    However, the Church encourages people to talk differently — to verbalize their testimony process as some variation of “read, pray, know.” Especially for missionary purposes, it just won’t work to tell people they have to join and practice for five or ten years before they gain a strong conviction they are doing the right thing. Or perhaps converts come by their religious convictions differently than those raised in a faith tradition?

  2. 2.

    Dave, I think you’re right to observe that most people’s testimonies are to a large extent based on obedience to commandments and their experiences in the church.

    Your supposition that the church asks people to put their experiences into the “read, pray, know” formula is interesting; I guess I just figured there were a lot of people out there having those kinds of experiences (at least occasionally). So, maybe I should ask others reading this thread: is the “read, pray, know” formula one that, at least in part, explains your testimony? Or has your experience been more like mine?

  3. 3.

    The “read, pray, know” formula has never explained my testimony. As a youth I often voiced my testimony in that way, because that’s what a “good person” did, and I wanted to be good. Despite all my praying, begging, pondering, and searching, I can’t claim to have had any type of witness or burning in the bosom. I’ve had much more profound experiences from being in nature, viewing great art, and listening to or participating in certain types of music.

  4. 4.

    Great post, Seraphine. I’ve had the standard “read/pray/know” experiences, but the spiritual impressions that have come to me as I’ve been out and about serving in Church callings and wrestling with the daily struggles of life have become the more important part of my testimony.

    I think it might be easy to doubt the answers I received to my prayers many years ago if I hadn’t had consistent, noticeable spiritual experiences along the way since. Over time these are what really makes me feel like I “know”.

    Incidentally, this same theme plays out in how Richard Bushman describes his own testimony. He described the experiences that led to his testimony in a wonderful essay titled “My Belief”. If anyone’s interested, I think it can be had at:

    http://byustudies.byu.edu/Products/MoreInfoPage/MoreInfo.aspx?Type=7&ProdID=1008

  5. 5.

    A large part of my testimony is based on one specific prayer experience in my bedroom. This was during a time when I was seriously reading the Book of Mormon for the first time in an effort to know if it was true. I also had doubts about God’s existence. The prayer experience was strong confirmation of God’s love and the truth of the Church.

    Another large part is based on experiences with service and participation in the Church.

    So it’s both for me.

  6. 6.

    Tom, thanks for sharing. My guess is that it’s both for a quite a few people. I think that many people occasionally have prayer experiences where they understand that something is true, and the rest of their testimony is built (and strengthened) through living the commandments.

    Are there others out there who have *never* had prayer experiences (or least not standard prayer experiences)?

  7. 7.

    Travis, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I know that I have been greatly strengthened from experiences where I have seen God involved directly in my life and my daily struggles. It’s definitely made the whole religion/God thing less abstract and more real to me, which is something I have greatly come to value.

    (And thanks for the link to the Bushman essay. I’ll definitely take a look at that.)

  8. 8.

    AmyB, thanks for sharing. I have felt the spirit strongly as I’ve been involved with music over the years (both inside and outside of church).

  9. 9.

    The John quote is very apt–it’s one of those gospel paradoxes: we are asked to *do* before we *know*. If we waited for a testimony of tithing before we paid tithing, for example, we might never pay. The testimony comes because of obedience. The witness comes after the trial of faith. Maybe that’s why I don’t have a testimony of polygamy? *wink*

    Awesome, thought-provoking post. Makes me want to work harder on “becoming.”

  10. 10.

    Idahospud, your comment made me laugh. As I was writing this post, I thought: if someone wanted to be obnoxious, they could point out to me that if I spent more time trying to fulfill my divine gender role (for example), maybe I would have a testimony of it. :)

  11. 11.

    Looks like I am getting in on this a little late. I did have a couple of thougts. This first was that when I first read your post, I thought of advice I have heard numerous times in the church. If you don’t have a testimony, bear it. Then it will come. I’m not sure I buy into it, but what do you think?

    Second, do you ever think this experiential testimony can tangentially approach godlessness? I don’t mean to imply your thinking is somehow dangerous. As Dave and others have said, I think it is a common experience in the church. The thinking would go something like this: If I don’t cheat on my wife, my marriage is better. If I don’t yell at my kids, my home is better. If I server my neighbor, we both are a little better off. If am am charitable in tithes and offerings, somehow, I am able to work out my finances. I wonder if this type of thinking makes it easy to just remove God from the equation. In other words, what if Mormonism were “true” just because it is an optimal combination of life practices?

    I know that may be enraging to some, but I have been thinking about it a lot lately. I would love to hear what other people have to say about it.

  12. 12.

    It’s not enraging at all. It’s a valid question, and particularly for those who were raised in the church and have always been faithful. As a convert, I experienced life without God, trying my best to do everything right, to be kind and good to people, and to live a moral and thoughtful life. And yet I failed miserably. The fact that I had tried and failed 1000 times to be perfect in some particular way, the weight of that, built up and made it impossible for me to try again. I was already sure I knew what the outcome would be. And who could believe differently with all that experience to the contrary?

    When my worldview changed, and I began to do my best to form this partnership with the living God, everything changed. It was gradual and not sudden, yet looking back, my life has completely turned around. I realized I was being abused, and took steps to make it stop, and to heal myself. This was only possible because I felt the love of God for me, his child, personally. I became convinced for the first time in my life of my own worth. Understand that the abuse came from the fact that my family is hurting, because they lack the gospel and fail to understand its principles. Since I’ve converted, my family life has turned around completely as well (not perfect yet and not without some serious bumps along the way — people resist change to familiar relationships), and I’ve been able to bring a measure of healing (I think and hope) into my family.

    I’ve reached out in service to others who are in similar situations to what mine was, and been able (I hope and think) to do real good, to change a few lives for the better. I’ve formed lasting ties with a strong and loving group of friends who support and encourage each other, and enjoy life and each other’s company greatly. I know that I’m destined to be a god myself someday. I look forward (most of the time) with a perfect brightness of hope. I’ve tasted from time to time, that white fruit, and I know what life is for, and what is good in life now.

    People may be trying their best to be moral and good, to follow successful patterns and make wise choices, but the direct influence of a loving God in our lives makes all the difference in the world.

  13. 13.

    The fact that one religion has consistently and wisely chosen to teach in a particular way, a certain combination of life practices, which are, in fact, close to optimal, is no accident. Our church does so many things right that other churches and other schemes for living life get wrong.

    1. Focus on learning. We don’t preach that people should avoid learning too much because it’s dangerous to faith. Instead we teach that everything true is part of our religion and the more you learn about everything, the better off you are. We teach that the light of God is intelligence.

    2. Focus on service. The very best way to generate love in a human heart is for the human to render loving service to those around him. What other church stresses service given by ordinary members to the extent that ours does? It is a tremendous blessing for us.

    There are too many to enumerate. While the church isn’t perfect, there are many, many ways in which it is wiser than any other human institution that exists. The best explanation I can find for that is that the wisdom comes from a non-human source. What I feel in my own heart, and the way that has changed me, also testifies to me that I’m getting divine help. As a convert, I’m sure I feel this far more intensely than someone who has grown up in the faith, with the faithful all around them, because I experienced, for many years, life without God.

  14. 14.

    aws, you ask some interesting questions. I’ve never been able to take God out of the picture–despite my confusion on a lot of issues, I have always had a strong conviction in the existence of God. However, I know a lot of people for whom the question of whether God really exists is a huge one. I can definitely see people making the decision to remain committed to the church not because they believe in God, but because the church makes their lives better.

    As for the question about “if you don’t have a testimony, bear it, and it will come” advice you often hear (heh–I’m now having “Field of Dreams” flashbacks), I’m slightly skeptical myself. However, I can acknowledge that it may be an experience that others have had (it strikes me as something that may happen for some people on a mission).

    I guess the reason I don’t really like the model is not because I think it’s not a possibility; I don’t like it because I think people should be authentic when they bear their testimony: I think people should be free to stand up and talk about what they do and don’t believe and how they’re struggling with their belief in an open, honest way. To me, bearing your testimony about something you don’t believe (or are uncertain about) seems counter-productive. Unless, of course, someone were to get up and talk about how they were trying to have faith in a certain principle (i.e. didn’t frame it in a “I know this is true” kind of way).

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