Sunday Sermon: Imperfect Knowledge

5104d43a0b5cf.preview-620The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave today in my DC Metro area ward.

We are very fond of using the language of certainty when we speak of the gospel, when we give our testimonies, and when we share our faith with our friends and family. We love to say “I know…” and we do so with such confidence that it becomes a linguistic tic of Mormonism. “I know the church is true…” What does that even mean? And what message does the language of unwavering certainty send to people whose faith is formed from different mettle? We sometimes imagine proclaiming knowledge is solid and comforting, and perhaps to some— or even to many— it is, but as an adult convert, I believe the framing of certainty, of “knowing” as the only expression of testimony can actually create an unintended gulf between members of the body of Christ’s church.

As for me and my heart, I don’t “know” much. But I do hope, and I do strive to nurture the seeds of belief that have nested themselves in my soul as I’ve moved from new convert through the last decade into whatever space it is I inhabit now.

The thing is, knowing (perfect or otherwise) isn’t required of me- not by my church, not by my Savior, and not by my Heavenly Father. Both Hebrews and Alma are quite clear about that:

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

I want to just hold that scripture in our thoughts for a moment, and consider that juxtaposed with proclamations of sure knowledge. I do not doubt that some of my fellow Saints feel sure of their knowing- to some extent I envy those who have such solid and unshakable certainty. “Knowing” can be framed as a blessing; but it’s one to which I personally cannot relate. Instead, I must rely on the more fragile scaffolding of faith.

It is required that I have faith, but it is also a choice and a gift. Faith is choosing to act on the things I hope for, even without proof or surety of outcome. Faith is watering the seeds of a desire to believe in Christ, and waiting for the proverbial mustard seeds to sprout and grow towards the light- even when you’re still in the dark. All seeds sprout in the dark, and the Lord gives us each a unique and deeply personal set of tools with which to tend our gardens and build our houses upon his rock.

The plan the Lord has for me and my talents isn’t the same as the one he has for you. The tools the Lord has placed in my spiritual bag are not the same tools you have in yours. The raw materials I have before me to build my life, to grow my testimony, and to direct my heart to the Savior are simply not the same as what the Lord has given you. They are not the same for anyone— not ever. And do you know what? That’s a beautiful thing. Too frequently we don’t actually acknowledge our differences are what makes us valuable to God. Everyone’s journey into faith is unique, and their relationship with God is deeply personal, but the Lord is what draws us together into a unified whole- and by doing so, we are stronger and richer for our unique contributions to the body of Christ.

The Lord needs each of us exactly how we are. Perfect knowing isn’t required to begin or to continue building your testimony and your faith. Somedays, if hope is the only thing rattling around in the bottom of your bags, that’s what you hold onto. And on those days, that’s good enough.

When I asked to become a member of the church, I wasn’t even sure I believed in Jesus as the Christ, but I so wanted God to be real— I had hope— and I had felt both the burning and the whispering of the Spirit all my life, in different moments and times, but hadn’t the language to give it a name. This is what I brought with me as a new member. These simple things continue to be my personal raw materials with which I contribute to my church and which form the bedrock of my testimony.

In Doctrine and Covenants section 46, we have an important window into how the Lord sees us:

11 For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.
12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.

It is then followed by a lengthy list of different blessings the children of God might be granted- but it’s clear the gifts are not uniform or universal- to some are granted faith, to some wisdom, to some knowledge, and so on, for more than 30 verses.

It isn’t required of me to “know”! The saints that I love who have the gift of “knowing” are not stronger or more righteous than me- My simple offering of my gifts of hope and faith are worthy and good enough in the eyes of my Savior- not only good enough, but he understands it may be the very best I have! What tremendous comfort there is in understanding my gifts are not only acceptable, but were given to me- chosen especially for me- by my heavenly father.

There *is* responsibility that accompanies the gifts of the Lord. With the raw materials we’re given, we are to do as President Uchtdorf says, and to “Lift where you stand.” We cannot simply look at our gifts, whatever they may be, and expect our faith or our testimonies to grow magically. It is us who must step out there, pick up what we have, and offer it to the world and to our God.

When we honor the gifts and challenges given to us, we then are able to build our testimonies in manors which are genuine, deeply rooted in our own experiences, and which reflect our love of God- while still being deeply personal and unique.

Consider our temples. They are all houses of the Lord. Each of these buildings are outward reflections of the love and devotion of the Saints toward God. They are beautiful, stunning and each of them is different. No one would dream of suggesting that one temple was a better reflection of the Lord. They are all the result of people turning to God, asking for inspiration, praying, listening, pondering and then picking up their tools and building a manifestation of their love for God.

This is what we do every day. These experiences underpin and confirm the personal nature of inspiration and of the unique ways in which our testimonies are forged and born.

There are people who seem to carry quiet, constant inspiration with them; it is their gift. Perhaps those Saints can stand and say “I know…” and for them it is foundational to who they are. What a blessing. I used to wonder what was wrong that I didn’t always feel the small but companionable whispering. It would sometimes make me question my faith.

Through practicing building with what I have, I have gathered enough experiences to know that’s simply not how the Lord communicates with me. It’s not a fault, as I once imagined— rather, it’s a manifestation that God knows and loves me.

These unique interactions with the divine speak to the personal nature of God in ways little else can. God knows how each of our minds work, how each of our spirits can best be touched, and what each of us will need to find our way home. Being aware of this also brings into focus that which nourishes one of us, might drown another, and what might leave some withering on the vine might be exactly what my sister or brother needs.

We have words we use to speak of the divine— I use them myself with varied success, and ply them as my trade— but words are necessarily barriers. For something to be understood, it must also be understood what it is not. When a fellow saint has the blessing of “knowing” we must understand that is their blessing, and celebrates the beauty they bring to the body of Christ with their unique gift. We must also lovingly embrace those who are not blessed with knowing, but who instead continue to show up, continue to build and add beauty to the kingdom of God with their offerings- even if those offerings take a more ephemeral form of “I believe…”

Comments

  1. Tracy, this is beautiful. You are such a awesome writer. I always like to read what you post on BCC.

  2. Just what I needed today. Thank you.

  3. Jason K. says:

    “Through practicing building with what I have, I have gathered enough experiences to know that’s simply not how the Lord communicates with me. It’s not a fault, as I once imagined— rather, it’s a manifestation that God knows and loves me.”

    Yes! You’re quite right to call us to remember how diverse the Lord’s gifts are. Thank you, Tracy!

  4. Lovely.

  5. Spiritual high five, Tracy.

  6. Jacob Matthews says:

    Well said! I wish this could be broadcast to the whole church.

  7. liesbeth thiel says:

    This is how I feel

  8. This is beautiful, Tracy!

  9. Gorgeous. How was it received?

  10. Well, I think. I had several people talk to me afterwards. The bishop got up after me and said “I know…” and then turned around and gave me a big grin.

  11. “I so wanted God to be real— I had hope” Wow. Awhile ago I went through some changes that rocked me to my core, including my belief in God and/or a loving Heavenly Father. I really didn’t know how to think about my thoughts and doubts and beliefs about God outside of the context of “I know.” I really really really wanted to believe in a kind and loving and merciful god but I felt like a fraud. I struggled for quite awhile with wanting to believe in God but not “knowing” that God is real and that God is good. I think you have articulated so powerfully why this language of knowledge was harmful to me – in a place where all I had was this hope that God is real and that God is good – I felt like a failure because it wasn’t enough. You have shown how the desire to believe in God is a good and beautiful thing, it is hope, instead of a fraudulent lack of faith.
    Tracy M, thank you for your beautiful writing and your wisdom.

  12. I know, I believe, I hope… These and any of their variations describe my faith at different times and in different things. Yet, they don’t always work perfectly. To iterate feelings and ideas that involve the spirit is difficult. Those present during Christ’s visit in the Book of Mormon had a hard time expressing what He said because so much of it was inexpressible. I’m grateful that you shared your talk with us. I hope we can all be understanding of each other regardless of the words we use as we attempt to share something much bigger than ourselves.

  13. Thank you Tracy, I wish I was there to experience your talk!

    On a related note, being a System Engineer, and sometimes I have to write scripts, to me the sentence “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” which is the default answer in Church of the question “What is Faith?” is ambiguous to me.

    Let me explain:

    If I were to translate this to computer code it would be

    $Faith = $substanceofThingsHopedFor
    $Faith = $evidenceofThingsNotSeen

    and both equate to the same value. But I can also interpret it to say

    $Faith = $substanceofThingsHopedFor && $evidenceofThingsNotSeen

    meaning that faith is the combination of both the substance and the evidence, not one or the other. So, which one is it?

    And can $evidenceofThingsNotSeen be replaced by $evidenceofThingsNotHeard or NotFelt (in the physical sense)?

    It might be my lack of skill in the English language (its not my native language), but can anyone describe to me what ‘substance’ in this instance is, or provide examples of this substance of a thing hoped for?

    Or is this the equivalent of the question “What does salt taste like?” because I do believe I have experience with faith… :)

  14. it's a series of tubes says:

    SuHwak, I think the expression you are looking for is $Faith != [any definition that doesn’t make sense to you].

    More seriously, though, for a non-native English speaker, you might find comparing a few translations to be helpful. Take a look at this link:

    http://biblehub.com/parallel/hebrews/11-1.htm

  15. Personally, I think “knowing” is not faith. Knowing is knowledge that has somehow been obtained.
    Thomas Monson may actually know that Christ lives and is the head of this Church–when Pres. Monson says he knows, I have the faith to believe that he knows in a way that I don’t yet know.
    If that makes any sense!lol

  16. I’ve been struggling with feeling inadequate because I don’t “know” when it comes to a lot of the gospel, but my hope has always been there. It never felt like enough. I so need to read this. Thank you, thank you.

  17. Thank you so much for this post. I wrote something similar on my blog a few months back about the stress that comes from not being able to say “I know this church is true” in testimony meeting. Its good to know I’m not the only one who can’t honestly give this declaration and to know that its okay to just have faith.

  18. BHodges says:

    I believe this post is great, Tracy, thanks. It can be difficult to express this kind of testimony in a wider church culture geared toward certainty. But I think it’s crucial people who see things this way speak about it. Amanda’s comment above stuck out to me:

    I really didn’t know how to think about my thoughts and doubts and beliefs about God outside of the context of “I know.”

    I need to keep improving at making room for different ways of thinking about the gospel, God, all sorts of things. The more members who do, I think the better off we can be. I liked these excerpts especially:

    All seeds sprout in the dark, and the Lord gives us each a unique and deeply personal set of tools with which to tend our gardens and build our houses upon his rock…

    I have gathered enough experiences to know that’s simply not how the Lord communicates with me. It’s not a fault, as I once imagined— rather, it’s a manifestation that God knows and loves me.