Eric D. Snider is a film critic, author, humorist, and gay Mormon. We’re glad to have his voice here.
(A talk I gave in sacrament meeting in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 18, 2015.)
To talk about “the elements of testimony,” I decided I had to talk about the elements of MY testimony. Elements are building blocks. They’re the parts of a thing that, without them, the thing isn’t the thing.
Sugar is made up of a certain number of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. (I don’t know how many. It would take a scientist to explain.) If you have “sugar” that doesn’t have one of those elements, or doesn’t have them in the right ratio, then it’s not sugar.
So what are the parts of my testimony without which it’s not a testimony? I narrowed it down to four.
1) God lives and loves us.
Joseph Smith said, and I’m paraphrasing slightly: “Three things are necessary in order that [a person] may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation. First, the idea that He actually exists. [Second], a correct idea of His character, perfections, and attributes. [And third], an actual knowledge that the course of life [he’s] pursuing is according to [God’s] will.”
It’s important to know that God isn’t a concept or idea, but an actual, physical being. And that He knows us. He knows ME, Eric D. Snider. I am His son, and He wants me to be happy.
It’s a great comfort to know God’s motives. 2 Nephi 26:24 says, “He doeth not ANYTHING save it be for the benefit of the world.”
Everything he does is for our benefit. That applies to us as individuals, too. God’s work and glory — His whole occupation, what He thinks about all day long — is to bring about our eternal life.
Often when something bad happens, people who believe in God ask, “Why did God do this?” But we already know the answer to that question. It’s always the same: because He loves us. He doesn’t do things to us just to be mean or weird. When we face trials, it’s either the result of sin — which means God is disciplining us, lovingly — or it’s because He knows it’s something we need and can benefit from.
The “love” aspect is not always obvious, of course. It’s on us to determine, first of all, whether our problems are the result of sin (and if they are, to repent) — and if not, then to ask “What can I learn from this? How does God want this to bless me, to be for my good?”
2) The Prophet Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith restored the priesthood — the authority to act in God’s name. He restored many truths of the gospel that had been lost. He translated the Book of Mormon — the greatest witness of Jesus Christ in all of human history.
If you don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, what are you doing here? A Mormon without a testimony of Joseph Smith is just a Baptist who doesn’t drink coffee.
Now, does that mean God approved of everything Joseph Smith ever did? My heavens, no. Joseph made mistakes. In particular, as we learn more about how polygamy was handled, and how he handled it in his own life, it seems like there may have been some serious errors.
But only Jesus ever had a 100% approval rating from God. Everyone else sins, sometimes seriously, even people called by the Lord.
Joseph saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in that grove of trees in 1820. He subsequently translated the Book of Mormon and restored the priesthood. Nothing he did after that changes the fact that those things happened. They are facts of history. They can’t be undone.
The Old Testament is all about how even though Israel has gone astray, the Lord will ultimately redeem her. Nothing she does cancels out the fact that she is the Lord’s chosen people.
And as individuals, nothing you or I do cancels out the fact that we are children of God, and that as descendants of Abraham — either literally by blood, or by adoption when we are baptized — we are entitled to the blessings promised to him.
That Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other church leaders made mistakes — including mistakes in how they handled the affairs of the church — doesn’t mean the whole thing comes crashing down. It means God is able to work even through imperfect servants. It means God is the very best at making lemonade out of lemons. He has to be, because he has nothing to work with but lemons.
Let me tell you a story. My dear mother was raised in the church in California. When she was 19, she went to Wyoming to spend the summer with friends. While she was there, she came to be pregnant. She came home to California and decided she would give the baby up for adoption. In the meantime, her parents, my grandparents, “sought to put her away privily.” She went to Los Angeles to stay with some friends for a few months while she gestated.
One night while she was in L.A., very pregnant, her friends had a party attended by a bunch of their friends. They all sat around talking, having a good time. At some point, my mom began to play the guitar and sing, and some of the guys made fun of her. Another guy, someone my mom didn’t know, stood up in her defense, and told the guys to knock it off. My mom noticed this fellow. They started to date.
A few weeks later, she had the baby. A few months after that, this guy from the party, having been introduced to the gospel by my mom, was baptized a member of the church. A few months after that, they were married. Eleven months after that, I was born. A month later, the three of us went to the temple and were sealed for all eternity. Five more children came along after that, and we are a big, happy eternal family.
My parents are perfect for each other — easily the most happily married couple I’ve ever met. They are a great couple and great parents. We’ve been richly blessed to be a family.
But they wouldn’t have met if my mom hadn’t gotten pregnant in Wyoming and been sent to L.A. to hide!
Does that mean this was all part of the plan? That my mom was doing what God wanted her to do? No! It was still a serious sin, and my mom had to repent of it. But God knew her heart, He knew her potential, and He knew the covenants she had made at baptism. He used this bad situation to put her on the path to a better one.
I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t made those mistakes in Wyoming. Maybe she would have met my dad some other way. Maybe she would have met someone as good or even better (though it’s hard to imagine)! I’m curious to see the alternate timeline, to see how it would have worked out. But it doesn’t matter what would have happened, because it didn’t.
Should Joseph Smith have done some things differently, or not at all? Yeah, it seems like it. And yet the gospel thrived anyway — and in some cases thrived because of the trials brought about by of Joseph’s and others’ mistakes.
3) The Lord leads the church today.
The authority that began with Joseph Smith has been passed on to subsequent prophets, down to Thomas S. Monson today. It is still the Lord’s church, and He still leads it.
We, as a church, have made mistakes in our history. And sometimes we have made those mistakes worse by refusing to acknowledge them. The way polygamy was handled, the priesthood ban — I think it’s fair to say some of our leaders made mistakes.
I’ve made mistakes too. But just as my mistakes don’t cancel out the fact that I’m a son of God with divine potential, even so, the mistakes of church leaders, or the mistakes of the church as an organization, don’t cancel out the fact that this is the Lord’s church. The only church with priesthood authority. The only church led by Jesus Christ.
4) If we remain faithful, it will all be OK.
This is the big one for me. In John chapter 6, the Savior was teaching some difficult doctrine, and he started to lose followers. It says:
“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
Where else would we go? You’re the one who has the truth.
I’m going to speak in coded language for a moment. I’m 41 years old, I’m single, I don’t enjoy sports, and I love musical theater. I’ll let you fill in the blanks. But the answer is yes, I am.
I’m also a Mormon. Each of those things, by themselves, can complicate a person’s life. Make things more difficult. And both of them, together — that has its own complications.
And so people say, “Why would someone of that orientation be in that religion?” Or they say, “How can someone of that religion be that orientation?”
But here’s the thing. Of my sexual orientation and my religion, only one of those things is a choice. I choose to be a Mormon. I choose to live the gospel. I choose to take the sacrament as a sign that I’m willing to take the Lord’s name upon me, to always remember Him, and to keep His commandments.
Why am I a Mormon? Same answer as Simon Peter: where else would I go? This is where eternal life is — in the doctrines and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only authorized version of which is only found here.
It’s really very simple: The thing that I want, this is where it is. I’m in the market for eternal life, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only shop that carries it. Whaddaya gonna do, you know?
That’s what I remind myself during the times when I don’t 100% love everything about the church, or my life, or my life in the church. In an imperfect church led by imperfect men full of (including myself) imperfect members, there are going to be some … imperfections.
Those imperfections don’t change the fact that this is the Lord’s church, led by His prophets.
They don’t retroactively change the fact that Joseph Smith restored the gospel, including the priesthood, and translated the Book of Mormon, all by divine inspiration.
And nothing changes the fact that God lives, He loves me, and He will lead me back to Him.
How, exactly, will it all work out? How will the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that some of us face be surmounted? I dunno.
1 Corinthians 2:9 says: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
Do you hear that? We can’t even IMAGINE the blessings that God has in store for us. They are literally beyond our comprehension.
So I can relax knowing that the things that are beyond my control will ultimately not just be worked out, but actually be for my benefit — in ways I may not even be able to imagine — as long as I stay faithful to the Lord.
I have come to know these four things through simple means: daily scripture study, daily prayer, regular church attendance. Living the gospel. Repenting when I make mistakes.
And having these four elements of my testimony means that no matter what problems I have in my life, or questions I have about church policy or church history — while I may seek answers for those things, whatever the answers are, and whether I find them or not, nothing changes the fact that:
God lives and loves me;
He restored his gospel through Joseph Smith;
He continues to lead the church today;
And if I am faithful, it will all be OK in the end.
I testify of this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.