Witnesses of God

Adapted from a talk I gave recently:

In his talk last conference, Elder Anderson encouraged us to stop feeling guilty about our lack of past success in member missionary work and to instead seek to be motivated by a desire to stand as a witness of God, quoting from Alma’s famous baptismal sermon at the waters of Mormon.

As I read Elder Anderson’s talk, I wonder what is the difference between how we normally approach missionary work and the approach he asks us to take? How is standing as a witness of God different from what we normally do (and that makes us feel guilty)?

As a lawyer, the word witness has a particular meaning to me. A witness is someone who gives testimony in a court proceeding, such as at trial, or in a deposition. And one difference between a witness and a lawyer, is that unlike a lawyer, whose job is to advocate for a position, a witness (at least in theory) has no agenda, other than to tell the truth. A witness for God is different from a salesman of the gospel. A witness doesn’t succeed or fail based on whether others were convinced to adopt a particular position, but based on whether her testimony reflects the truth.

I think that’s an important point. As member missionaries, we often think our agenda is to get people to join the church, but it isn’t. Our agenda is to tell the truth, and to let the Holy Ghost bring them into the church, if that is what they want. The Lord told Joseph Smith that the early missionaries were ordained “to preach my gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.” D&C 50:13. And he goes on in that revelation to explain that the only acceptable way to preach the gospel is by the “spirit of truth.” But we, as human beings, often think that our role is something different from just telling the truth about our experiences with God. We think that we are supposed to speak eloquently, speak convincingly, have an answer for every objection. But you can also feel the frustration in the Lord’s voice when, after making this point at least twice already, he says “Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth?” As witnesses of God, our only agenda is to tell the truth about what God has done for us.

There can be a danger in this, but it is freeing. It is freeing because it allows us to stop worrying about how people will respond. The danger is that we can mistake our own predilections for the gospel truth. We are called to stand as witnesses of God, not witnesses of our political positions or deeply and sincerely held beliefs about certain gospel issues. To stand as a witness of God means to tell the truth about our experience with grace, with forgiveness, with repentance, and with the Holy Ghost.

And that leads me to another important point. A witness’s role is narrowly limited. A witness cannot testify about things outside of his or her personal knowledge. Outside of some exceptions, a witness cannot testify about what others told him. I of course don’t mean to suggest that our spiritual witness is subject to all the technicalities of the federal rules of evidence, but I think this illustrates an important principle: a witness speaks from personal knowledge gained by his or her own experience.

If all I do is repeat words that I memorized from someone else’s experience, that may have some limited value, but that isn’t standing as a witness. To stand as a witness of God, I need to have my own experience with God. I need to have what the Book of Mormon calls a mighty change of heart. I need to humble myself, repent, call upon God, trust in Jesus alone for salvation, and become what the Book of Mormon calls a new creature in Christ. When I have experienced the atonement and the grace of Christ, I have experienced God, and then I can stand as a witness of God.

I think we sometimes confuse conversion with testimony. When someone asks what is your conversion story, we often tell the stories of how we gained a testimony that the Book of Mormon is true, or that the church is true, or that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Those can be important and sacred experiences, and yet they are only a prelude to real conversion. The whole point of the Book of Mormon, of the mission of the prophet Joseph Smith, and of the church today, is to bring us to Jesus Christ so that we can be converted through him. To be converted is not to be convinced of a propositional truth. To be converted is to have our nature changed. If the Book of Mormon has taught me anything, it is that there is no person who can become righteous by obeying the commandments. To become righteous is to be changed by God, and to do that, we have to to submit the mortal and fallen part of our nature to the will of God, and to the divine part of our nature. Conversion means change. And change comes only by repentance and by faith in Jesus’ ability and willingness to change us.

So to be a witness of God means that we must experience God. If we take it seriously, Elder Anderson’s call to stand as a witness of God is a call to become converted.

 

Comments

  1. I’ve given the same description of the job of a “witness”, comparing them to a courtroom witness, and in sharing testimony, that it is your personal experiences, etc. You do it much better than I have. Hope you don’t mind if I update my talk using some your wording?

    Also, if you want to alter typos in 3rd paragraph (success – succeed) and 2nd to last (thoase – those)

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    Holy crap this is excellent. A great distillation of some important thoughts. I know I’m going to borrow liberally from this in future talks and lessons, so I’m apologizing for my plagiarism in advance.

  3. Thanks for being my editor, Jax. Fixed.

    Jax and tubes, you guys are of course free to steal anything here.

  4. I know you couldn’t have said this in your talk. But every time I hear or read about witnessing in the church, I’m reminded that women are not allowed to be witnesses at all times and in all places (temples and baptism). Your thoughts from the lawyering side make me wonder once again if it’s a cultural shadow of another time when women’s testimonies were not seen as valid as men’s testimonies. And by keeping it the way we do, we inadvertently continue to officially say that.

    Going to your final point though, I do find myself working harder to experience God in those rare times when I’ve found myself barred from full acceptance and participation. And that feels right.

  5. Thanks JKC, and thanks EmJen.

  6. JKC, you have just caused me to toss two posts I’ve been working on into the bit bucket: a post on how, in the early 20th century, we taught formal monthly Sunday School lessons on bearing testimony, which involved recognizing and testifying to certain explicit personal experiences, rather than generic “I know the Church is true” statements; and second, why as a blogger I avoid bearing somebody else’s testimony by repeating some historical person’s claim that, for example, they were healed after a priesthood blessing (I can report that so-and-so said he was miraculously healed, but I cannot say in my own voice that the Lord healed so-and-so, because I am in no sense a witness of that experience). You’ve written this so beautifully.

  7. That’s an important comment, EmJen. I particularly love your last two sentences. It definitely feels right. To me, at least.

  8. Thanks for that Ardis. It’s funny; you probably know the history better than I do, but it seems that there’s been a sort of pendulum swing back and forth between a focus on the personal (which can verge into enthusiastic) and a focus on the basic (which can verge into generic). I can’t help but think that there’s a way to be both personal and keep the focus on the basics.

  9. But what I meant by personal is how you’ve described it in your talk — how I know the grace of Christ, for example, through such-and-such specific experience: “When I have experienced the atonement and the grace of Christ, I have experienced God, and than I can stand as a witness of God.” I do see the pendulum, though — as when BRMcConkie prescribed the specific elements that (he said) *must* be a part of every verbally borne testimony for it to count as a testimony. So we trained everyone to repeat his elements, without giving evidence as witnesses, and we get testimonies that may be heartfelt, but which too often don’t add a single bit of evidence to the case at bar.

  10. Oh yeah, this is great stuff. I’ve tried to express much of this myself at times, but not nearly so well. And, in a way, it even kind of explains why real, personal testimony affects me so much.

  11. I totally agree, Ardis.

  12. Thank you, Martin. One story I didn’t end up using, but thought relevant, was Brigham Young’s story about being convinced by the uneloquent testimony of Eleazar Miller, and relatively unaffected by his well-spoken companion’s sermon.

  13. Well said, JKC. And Emjen: important–vital–stuff. In text studies the word “witness” gets used for texts that, say, relate a sermon. There may be many witness texts, for example, in Puritan preaching, pew witnesses are fascinating. But they are not necessarily coherent and that led to classification of witnesses. I wonder if something similar applies here.

  14. Excellent thoughts and very well articulated. you always help me through the gate. One of our purposes in this life is to experience grace, at times we can best share those experiences by how we live our lives. Good job JKC! :)

  15. It would think that the best way to “testify” is live a good Christian life. Love God, love your neighbor. I think proselytizing missionaries have found that service activities can be much more effective than overt activities like tracting. Let’s discourage salesmanship and replace it with heartfelt service. Give people an important reason to join the Church.

  16. Clay and roger:
    I absolutely agree service is often the best testimony. Often the best sermons are preached with hammers and nails, shovels, food, or just a shoulder to cry on. St. Francis’ quip about preaching the gospel at all times, and using words if necessary, is true.

    And, I hesitate to add this, roger, because I don’t want to detract from the point, but I’m actually not sure that thinking of service as a more effective missionary activity is the right way to go. Too often, in my experience, we approach service with a missionary goal and if it doesn’t lead to missionary opportunities, we can wrongly question whether it was successful and worth it. I think the right way, consistent with the addition to caring for the poor to the old “three-fold mission” is to treat service as its own worthwhile activity separate from missionary work. Of course, all good work is part of the same work, but I think its important to not saddle service with missionary expectations. Put differently, service can be effective missionary work, but that is not what justifies it as worthwhile and important work, and we need to do it even when it doesn’t lead to visible missionary success.

  17. JKC I spent 2-1/2 years on a proselytizing mission in France and Belgium in the 1960s. Believe me my time (and most of other missionaries at the time) would have better spent in service. Even if it didn’t lead to flood baptisms.

    We need to do service, not because it will bring more members into the Church, but because it is right thing to do. If we provide real, heartfelt service, we will opportunities to “testify.” I think this has been shown over and over again. There is a lot to be said for being good neighbors.

    And I suspect that retention rates among new members would be better.

  18. I really like this article. Though I have considered the legal role of a witness before, I haven’t juxtaposed it with the role of a lawyer before. I think it really enriches and clarifies what being a witness entails.

    JKC: “treat service as its own worthwhile activity separate from missionary work. Of course, all good work is part of the same work, but I think it’s important to not saddle service with missionary expectations”

    This reminds me of the Savior healing others. Some thanked him, some did not, some followed his admonitions to keep it quiet, others did not. His healing was successful and miraculous regardless of the person’s subsequent actions. Similar to his healing of others, we can seek to bless the lives of those around us without feeling the need to classify it a success only if it encourages them to join the church.

    Here’s another editor note: than should be then in the third-to-last paragraph: “When I have experienced the atonement and the grace of Christ, I have experienced God, and than I can stand as a witness of God.”

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I believe it was Elder McConkie who pushed the idea that “testimony” should be a recitation of simple propositional truths (“I know the Church is true,” “I know Joseph Smith was a Prophet,” “I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God,” “I know Thomas S. Monson is a Prophet,” etc.). Before that, testimonies used to be mush more personally grounded.

  20. roger, I completely agree with you.

    Aaron, thanks!

    Kevin, yes, I think that goes to the pendulum point that Ardis and I were discussing above. And I can appreciate why Elder McConkie would come down that way, if the concern is to keep focused on the basics and avoid speculation parading as doctrine, etc. As Ardis pointed out, a personal testimony is at least in theory fully compatible with one that focuses on basic truths. But it’s been a long time since I read that talk, and I don’t remember whether he comes out against even a personal witness of those simple propositional truths. That is, whether he wanted testimonies that are just skeletons of propositional statements, or whether he was okay with putting some meat on those bones as long as it was just those bones and not some other animal.

  21. A very useful distinction, JKC, articulated clearly. Thanks!

  22. “As member missionaries, we often think our agenda is to get people to join the church, but it isn’t. Our agenda is to tell the truth, and to let the Holy Ghost bring them into the church, if that is what they want.” I wish this was more widely understood and accepted by local leaders. I think it’s disingenuous to befriend someone with the goal of having him/her take the missionary discussions. I prefer rogerdhansen’s suggestion of providing heartfelt service – wherever and to whomever it is needed – for member as well as full time missionaries. Thanks JKC for what you’ve said and the way you said it.

  23. Very fine talk and useful distinction. I am of an age that I learned the witnessing form of testimony and missionary work from the beginning, and of a predeliction to tune out Elder McConkie, so that I’ve seen the consequences of his teaching but always been puzzled by where that came from.
    I struggle with the ‘time and place’ question when it happens that my witness, such as it is, has no Mormon-speak content and without careful pruning and packaging sounds alien. I find it suitable for a conversation with my a-theist brother and out of place in a Mormon testimony meeting.

  24. Sometimes what may sound out of place in a Mormon testimony meeting of the current style can be the most inspiring, uplifting part of the meeting. I recall a relatively lengthy testimony borne by a BYU professor/counselor in our bishopric back when BRM was still very much with us; it was not at all what BRM proposed a testimony should be. Our bishopric counselor spoke of what he believed and why he believed it, never once using the word “know.” To the best of my personal observation the short testimony of stock Mormon-speak phrases is mostly tuned out by most of the congregation — except those who think it is cute or desirable to have small children recite phrases they’ve learned in a bid for attention. The testimonies that inspire are personal witnesses, often from young men or young women or recent converts speaking of their experience and not much concerned with either Mormon-speak or artificial strictures on what constitutes a “proper” testimony. Thanks, JKC for your reminder.

  25. TinaR, I guess everyone’s experience differs, so I can only speak for my experience, but my local leaders have always been very good about this. Part of the talk that I didn’t post was where I talked about if we want to have missionary experiences, the best two things we can do are (1) be better at making friends with non-members–not becoming friends for the purpose of doing missionary work, but just becoming friends and (2) deepen our own conversion. My experience is that if you work at becoming converted and having the spirit with you, people in your life will notice it and what we might call missionary moments or gospel conversations will happen naturally. If that isn’t happening, my experience is that the best way to make that happen is to focus on deepening conversion rather than on trying to force a gospel conversation, because well, it will sound forced.

    Christian, I know what you mean, and I wish our meetings could be a more inviting setting to share a personal witness that might not sound typical.

    I really don’t mean for this to turn into a BRM bashing session–not that it has. You guys have expressed some valid criticism of the model of testimony that is nothing but propositional statements. But I also think there is some good in his advice to keep it focused on the basics. I think there’s a way to do both–that is, to have it be personal, and also have it focused on basic truths and not veer off into space doctriny stuff, or worse.

  26. The Other Aussie Mormon says:

    I have found that I typically avoid the “sacrament talk” posts at BCC. Hard to articulate why and don’t want to offend because there have been some excellent ones posted, but I typically roll my eyes and stay away. But wow, I am so glad that I read this. A deadset cracker of a talk. Really really appreciate you sharing.

  27. Wow. Thanks