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.