I still remember the first time I bore my testimony in an LDS sacrament meeting. I must’ve been 6 or 7 years old. In the same way that I wanted to be the first out of my triplet brother and sister to sit in the back row of the Tidal Wave at Lagoon, I was determined to be the first to courageously take the long walk to the pulpit and share what I knew to be true.
What should’ve been daunting for a child to do came pretty easily to me. After all, I’d pretty much memorized what I was supposed to say. Up to the pulpit I went. I grabbed the microphone and positioned it within a centimeter of my mouth and proclaimed, “I want to bear my testimony. I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. I love my mom and dad. Name of Jesus Christ, amen.” I remember how good it felt when some of my older brothers patted me on the back with a “good job, Nathan”. Most importantly, I felt the love and approval from my mother.
Over the years, I have watched thousands of children get up and do the same thing. It’s become a rite of passage in a way. You have to admit, it’s an adorable thing. Sure, sometimes it gets old when you want to hear grown-ups share their thoughts and then 10 kids rush the stage to essentially say the same thing, one after the other. I appreciate the comic relief, however. There’s always that one kid who burps or giggles or trembles when they get to the mic. It’s so cute! But, if I’m being honest, there was always a part of me that was uncomfortable with children being taught to say “I know” when, in most cases, they didn’t know their multiplication table. I hate the word “brainwashing”, but I sometimes wondered what some parents would do and say to their own kids if they wouldn’t get up and say “I know”. Luckily, my mother never forced or pushed for me to get up there. It was just something that you were supposed to do because other kids were doing it.
I’ve watched some of these children grow into teenagers, young adults, and parents with children of their own. It’s been a most interesting study of the many different ways one’s testimony can evolve over the years. Part of the reason that I am still a member of the church as a gay man is that I have felt many wonderful, meaningful feelings during testimony meetings. At their worst, these meetings can be tedious, boring or full of ridiculous amounts of emotion. Some choose to play testimony bingo as a way to get through all of the canned things people say. There’s also the “I’ll go up if you go first” game that gets a little tired. But, at their best, these meetings have been sacred, powerful and strengthening to me.
There is, however, one thing about these meetings that hasn’t seemed to change from when I was a kid: The pressure to say the words “I know” is as apparent for adults as it is for children.
Now, I’m not saying that church leadership demands this of its members. But there is an unspoken pressure where many say “I know” instead of “I believe”. Who am I to question what somebody knows? It’s not my place. But as one who has intently listened to the testimonies of thousands, I have questions when someone says “I know without a shadow of a doubt”. I’d like to know how they came to this knowledge. What did they see and hear to be able to say “I know”? Most would answer that it’s about what they have felt, not what their senses have experienced. I can relate to that.
- When I taught the discussions in the mission field, I felt something special.
- When I began attending the temple, I felt something special.
- When I went to Palmyra and walked through the Smith family log cabin and frame house and then went into the Sacred Grove and prayed, I felt something special.
- When I went to Kirtland and stood in the upper floor of the temple and contemplated some of the revelations that were given to Joseph Smith and others, I felt something special.
- When I went to the School of Prophets and the Newel K. Whitney store and considered some of the events that took place there, I felt something special.
- When I went to Nauvoo and did a session in that temple and then went to Carthage to see where the martyrdom occurred, I felt something special.
- When I went to Independence, Adam-ondi-Ahman, Haun’s Mill, Far West and the Liberty Jail and took all of that history in, I felt something special.
Where did these feelings come from? Well, in the church, we would identify that as the Spirit. Some would suggest that after a lifetime of being taught about these experiences that occurred in these various locations, that of course it would be a meaningful experience to visit any one of them. Perhaps I was wired and programmed to feel such emotions after putting so much hope and study into what occurred in each “landmark”. Others would dismiss these feelings as a Santa Claus effect. Remember the magic of being a child and having so much hope and even assurance that Santa was real? You couldn’t doubt! After all, “if you don’t believe, you don’t receive.” Finally, there are some who would dismiss these experiences as strange, biological ticks that the body sends through the nervous system when certain emotions are felt, like watching a touching movie or reading a moving novel.
I don’t feel the need to become defensive when these kinds of things are suggested. But, at the same time, I will say without apology that these feelings are the very reason I have not up and left the church. These experiences mean a great deal to me. I’ll never forget them. But even now, with most things in the church, I can only offer “I believe”. Sometimes, I’m made to feel that “I believe” isn’t good enough. It’s only when you can proclaim boldly “I know” that you truly have a testimony. Or, at least, that’s how it feels sometimes.
Listen with a new set of ears in your testimony meetings this Sunday. Keep track of how many members state “I know” versus “I believe”. As you listen to those who claim “I know”, do you have some of the same questions I have? Have they seen and heard things I haven’t? Are they taking the experiences they’ve had like the ones I listed above and elevating them up to a surety of knowledge? If so, it’s not my place to judge or criticize. I guess I just feel inferior sometimes because I’d begin many sentences in my testimony with “I believe” instead of “I know”. For some, this inability to say “I know” leads to feelings of inferiority.
Even our Articles of Faith begin with the words “We believe”. Not a single one of them starts with “We know”.
I’m not here to challenge anyone’s testimony. After all, mine means a great deal to me. If someone tore my testimony apart, it would affect me in a deep, personal way. I guess I just wish others would see my testimony as worthy and powerful even if I begin most sentences with “I feel confident that…” or “I have every reason to believe that..”. I think we show faith when we say those beautiful words: “I believe”. Can faith lead to a knowledge of things? Sure. But I do not have a perfect knowledge of most of the things I believe. It doesn’t mean that the things I believe aren’t important.
One of the strongest testimonies I’ve ever read about the Savior and His atonement came from Elder Bruce R. McConkie in April of 1985, just days before his passing:
“I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears.
But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.”
I remember loving this address entitled “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane” so much as a teenager. I still read it and marvel at the words he expressed. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve often thought “Unless he already walked and talked with Jesus, how could Elder McConkie know to that degree? Certainly, something as intimate as seeing the Savior in person and feeling his nail marks would be the surest way to know, so how was McConkie so sure unless he's seen and interacted with the Savior?”
In my mind, I can reason that Elder McConkie was a special witness, had a special calling and that He probably lived a life that was much more conducive to having a close relationship with the Savior. I’ve listened to the testimonies of prophets and apostles throughout my life and have been moved by many of them when they use the words “I know”. I also consider scriptural accounts where people saw and interacted with heavenly messengers but still didn’t seem to “know” in their hearts what they had seen and heard. I’m willing to consider all of that. It’s only when lay members of the church speak with such conviction and assurance that I have a hard time accepting why they are at “I know” status when I’m only at “I believe” status.
In closing, I’ll say that I have a testimony. I believe there is a God in Heaven who loves us and wants us to return to Him. I believe with all of my heart that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and that through Him, I can return to Heavenly Father, even as a gay man. I have read the Book of Mormon many times and have felt closer to the Lord by its teachings. I’m not sure I can say that I know that it’s the word of God, but I can say that I have a love of the book. I am aware of some of the problematic things that people say about Joseph Smith. Some of these things are unfounded while others seem to be a matter of record. Through it all, I want to believe that he was truly a chosen prophet and that the Lord used him to restore His own church to the earth. I cannot say "I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet" as I did when I was 6 years old. But I can say "as I've studied his life and his teachings, I believe he was a man of God".
I think that Heavenly Father would be pleased by what I just shared in the previous paragraph, and yet, for some members of the church, my testimony isn’t enough until I can say “I know”. To them, I’d offer that I can’t fully accept their testimonies if every sentence begins with “I know”, especially when some of the statements that follow the words “I know” are extremely hurtful. I guess, at the end of the day, we should all just try harder to create spaces where people are welcome and comfortable sharing what they believe or what they know. I would just like to see less pressure to subscribe to “I know” statements and more support and encouragement anytime someone has to the courage to say “I believe.”