Many people assume that if you don’t “know” something as it pertains to the church, then you don’t have a testimony and you’re weak in the gospel. But I can say truthfully, that I have never been stronger in the gospel… and it has nothing to do with “knowing” anything. I can say honestly that my belief, my hope, and my faith are exponentially stronger at driving action in my life than any perfect knowledge that I have gained. That hope, that faith, and that growing belief has driven me to dedicate much of my waking life to this cause.
But sometimes I feel so alone in that mindset…
On almost any given Sunday, you’ll be sure to hear a variety of people at one time or another say, “I know” the church is true among other common “I know” declarations. 2-year-olds, 20-year-olds, and 80-year-olds. It seems like everyone around me knows without a shadow of a doubt that the church is true. In fact, it seems as if everyone “knows” virtually everything when making any kind of ecclesiastical statement from the pulpit or at the close of any class.
Why is it that we don’t hear more people say “I believe,” “I hope,” or “I have faith” in such and such as it pertains to the church or the gospel? Is it truly because everyone has made their calling and election sure or received the second comforter? I’m not questioning or doubting other’s convictions or declarations. I would be a fool to do so. Many people have experienced things that I have not experienced and I’m not one to assume that if I didn’t experience it, then it didn’t happen.
But here I am… still trying to figure things out. Still taking steps of faith and hope into the darkness. Hoping that one day I’ll have this same manifestation. I’ve often wondered what’s wrong with me. Am I not spiritually sensitive? Am I not good enough to ‘receive a witness’ or this ‘knowledge’ that so many speak of? How come I haven’t had these convincing revelatory experiences? How come the Moroni 10:3-5 challenge didn’t do the trick for me? Am I missing something? Are my prayers not sincere enough? Am I not studying enough?
A few weeks ago I was giving a talk in church alongside a 12-year-old newly ordained deacon. Everyone surely anticipated that he would end his talk with “I know the Church is true” and other common phrases we’re accustomed to hearing. It’s just who we are. And it’s just what we say. The brother before us probably said it and the sister after us will most likely say it as well. It makes us feel happy and comfortable, and spiritually resolute. None of us want to look weak in the gospel or be labeled as a doubter. For some reason, we as humans are unequivocally uncomfortable with uncertainty. We want to make sure we give a “powerful” testimony. So, in many situations, we say what others say. But this newly minted deacon shocked and surprised me. The precision and honesty of his words and testimony inspired me as I sat on the stand behind him. He got up and said in effect, “Look… I’m still trying to figure things out. I do love going to church and I love how I feel when I keep the commandments. I believe in the church and look forward to learning more.” It was a very thoughtful and doctrinally accurate talk, and it was from his heart. There was no parental or cultural regurgitation. No peer pressure. No desire to just “fit in.” He was his own man, working hard to become a more dedicated believer.
Did this young man “know” the church was true? No, but he did “know” how he felt when he came to church and kept the commandments. Feeling good about going to church didn’t necessitate a hard lined statement about the church being true or any number of absolute statements. But we revert to that phrase because we’re scared or anxious or at a loss for words.
If someone says the church is true, what in actuality does that mean? The New Testament defines the church as the people or the members of the body of Christ. So, the church is defined as a group of people. But the scriptures say to never place your trust in the arm of flesh and to place your trust in God. We know from experience that people aren’t always true. They have flaws and faults. All of us do. Today, we seem to define the church as the organization that encompasses church government, setting forth doctrine and policy. But aside from core doctrines, that is always changing as well. The church that was true in 1830 is a very different church from the church we so adamantly declare as true today. How does that work?
Before publishing this, I talked to many friends and members of the church and asked for their take on the topic. Almost everyone I talked to suggested that we have universally interchanged the word “believe” for the word “know.” When I ask someone what they mean when they use the phrase “I know” in the context of church-related declarations, they almost always say that they “feel like they know.” “Feeling” like you know is very different than truly knowing something.
I remember people telling me on my mission that I needed to use the phrase “I know” when I was teaching or sharing my testimony with others. But what if I didn’t know? What if I just believed? What if I just had faith? Was not my honest hope, my belief, and my faith good enough to bring someone to Christ? I gave up everything to go on a mission… and it was all done by faith, hope, and belief. David O. McKay was in a similar spot with his weak and fragile testimony when he left on his mission. B.H. Roberts struggled back and forth with his testimony of the Book of Mormon for years even as a mission president and a seventy. It was his belief and faith that carried him forward. Not his knowledge. That belief and faith caused him to become one of the greatest researchers and theological contributors the church has ever had.
I guess what I’m getting to is this: When did belief… become not good enough? When did not “knowing” become a scarlet letter or an attribute of a doubter? According to the Doctrine & Covenants, the Lord says:
“To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.”
“To some, it is given by the Holy Ghost to know”
“To others, it is given to believe on their words”
To some it is given to know. I believe that. But not all people. Nor should all people be expected to know, or to say that they know. Christ asks us to become whole and complete through belief and faith in his name. To learn line upon line and precept upon precept with the presupposition to gospel learning that we don’t know everything, and won’t know everything until we’ve gone back beyond the veil. We’re learning. But if we say we “know” things that are largely unknowable in this life, then the quest for learning should cease. We’re through exercising belief.
Being given the gift of knowledge is a gift. But being given the gift of faith or belief is a gift as well. Neither greater than the other. Both given to various people at various times to work in concert with one another. Not to denigrate or lift one gift over another.
Our modern scriptures tell me that it’s alright to just “believe.” The entire New Testament is filled with instances in which the Savior consistently and continually challenges people to “only believe” or to “just believe.” Never have I read where the Savior asks us “to know.” It was always about exercising just the slightest bit of belief and faith. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) “If thou canst believe, all things are possible.” He even used a mustard seed to exemplify how minute that faith needed to actually be. But in our day, it feels as if you’ve got to absolutely know… and if you don’t know… well then you must be doing something wrong. That is culturally stifling, and it makes investigators cringe in wonder.
Where did this notion of needing to “know” actually come from in the first place? Some people said that they knew blacks wouldn’t receive the priesthood. Others said that they knew polygamy was an eternal principle and required for exhalation. How about the myriad of temple-recommend holding scholars and researchers who argue about whether Book of Mormon history took place in North America or Mesoamerica? Without a doubt, they cite their credentials and ratify it by what they say is a spiritual confirmation that it’s true. Can they hold contradicting theories and both be right… while both lay claim to a personal spiritual witness that it’s true? How many resolute testimonies have you heard about a given program, be it Boy Scouts or Home Teaching, or any number of ward mission plans in which someone said that they “knew” that it was the will of the Lord? And then on a cool April or October morning… it’s not. We know… and then we don’t. Haven’t we learned by now that what we think we know, will likely evolve or change? So why must we be so absolute? Why can’t we just say that we believe such and such will happen, or that such and such a program brings me closer to Christ? And then get better! We lose ourselves in the quest for being right instead of losing ourselves in the quest for getting better.
I believe we incorrectly overuse the phrase “I know” as it pertains to aspects of spirituality and the church. I personally believe we do this as a culture to the detriment of many who don’t actually “know” or feel uncomfortable saying so. I don’t believe that is how the original apostles spoke… and what’s even more intriguing… is that I don’t believe this is how modern apostles speak either. I was curious, so I decided to listen to the most recent general conference addresses again. I wanted to listen for cultural jargon in the testimony of the apostles. And go figure… it wasn’t there. Not one of them said the phrase “I know the church is true” or anything like it. I’m not saying they’ve never said it or that they wouldn’t say it (I know some have). I’m just saying that they didn’t use that kind of language in the most recent conference. I’ve also paid close attention to BYU scholars, seventies, and other general officers of the church. I watched Sherri Dew not too long ago at the Claremont Colleges use the phrase “I believe” over and over again in front of hundreds of Mormons and Evangelicals. Never once was the phrase “I know” used.
Most of us identify as “believers,” right? Not “knowers.” Doesn’t it feel like when we use the word “believe,” that it lowers defenses in others and opens the door for dialogue? Whereas, “I know” shuts the door and creates the natural response in others to contend or defend? Could it be that this “I know” phraseology is so common among missionaries that it is turning people off and catapulting us as a church into the lowest convert baptizing era the church has ever seen?
The 13 most core tenants of our church and faith are summed up by Joseph Smith in just two words: “We believe…” We believe in God. We believe in prophecy. We believe the Bible and the Book of Mormon. We believe! We hope! We endure… and hope to be able to endure more.” Article of faith after article of faith moves us toward belief, not knowledge. No wonder B.H. Roberts loved the Wentworth letter so much, calling it “one of the choicest documents in our church literature.” Joseph Smith, through the articles of our faith, was asking people to believe. Jesus, infinitely greater than Joseph Smith, was asking us to just believe. So why do we insist on whispering, “I know,” into our primary children’s ears?
There is not one temple recommend question that asks us if we “know.” It’s… “Do you have faith in and a testimony of…”
After every testimony, every lesson, every sermon, and after every prayer, we say just one word. “Amen.” That word, “Amen,” in the Hebrew means, “Believe.” We are, again and again reaffirming our belief in the words that were just spoken. “I believe. I believe.”
There are people who say they have knowledge, and yet do nothing with that knowledge. I have extended family members who haven’t been to church in decades… and yet, they will tell you that they “know” the church is true. Do they really? If they really knew… would they truly let a petty argument with an Elders Quorum President keep them away?
All the things I’ve done in my life for this church and for this gospel, I did without a perfect knowledge. I’ve served as a missionary and sacrificed a great deal. I served as an early morning seminary teacher, up at 4:30, every morning. I’ve served as a temple worker and held many other demanding callings and I have blogged on behalf of this church to the point of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. All of it I did without knowing anything other than this:
I know that Jesus Christ as documented in the Holy Bible makes me a better and happier man. I know this because I have experienced life with and without Him in my life. I know what it feels like to live his teachings and keep his commandments as set forth in the scriptures and I know what it’s like to not. I have experienced the contrast. It is tangible to me.
I also know that the Book of Mormon makes me a better man. Of all the books I’ve studied, there is not another that I’ve read with comparable depth, complexity, and wisdom. The evidence for me, points to its truth. And yet still, I have not had the same experience with it that Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdrey, or any number of others in the church who have gained a perfect knowledge of the book’s historicity. I’m just not there yet. But my faith is strong. So strong that you’d think I’d held those plates, worn the breastplate, and held the sword of Laban with my own hands.
I know that without what I understand about Christ and the combined restoration of the gospel, I have no hope for the future. It is only He and his sealing cords that provide me with any hope for the kind of life I’d like to live now and in the next life.
There are many, many other things I know. But as it pertains to religion and faith, it is hope and belief that provide the stability I need to continue seeking after Christ and His goodness. As one of our most resolute apostles said long ago, “I believe in Christ, He is my king, with all my heart, to him I’ll sing.”