From a talk originally given at a Ricks College devotional, 14 September 1982
“If with All Your Hearts Ye Truly Seek Me”
I would like to take as something of a text a passage from Deuteronomy: “But if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.
“When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; … He will not forsake thee.” (Deut. 4:30–31.)
The subject on my mind is testimony—our testimonies that God lives and that Joseph Smith was his prophet.
Our family recently lost a close friend when a high school senior we knew well died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart defect. It was very hard for our three teenage sons the night the news came to us. We sat up a long time that night, just crying and talking, and trying to understand.
Shortly after that, we received word that Terry Crapo had died of leukemia. Terry, who was my age, was a very close friend and an exquisitely rare example.
The Lord lets every one of us, each in his own way, have the experience of losing people we love. Most of us are also called upon to do things we really don’t want to do, or to give up things we really want to keep. But we do as we should because of our religious commitments. And the Lord wants to help us develop testimonies strong enough to withstand any kind of pressure, any kind of pain or adversity; testimonies strong enough to exalt us. Joseph Smith wrote, “For a man to lay down his all, his character and reputation, … his houses, his lands, … his wife and children and even his own life … requires more than mere belief or supposition that he is doing the will of God; but actual knowledge, realizing that, when these sufferings are ended, he will enter into eternal rest, and be a partaker of the glory of God.
“A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; … It is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God.” (Lectures on Faith, 6:5, 7.)
Someone once said that you can’t visually tell the difference between a strand of cobweb and a strand of powerful nylon cord—until some stress is put on the strand. Our testimonies are that way, and the days of stress for your testimonies have already begun. It may not yet be the death of a loved one. You may not be asked to give up your home or car—though some of you will come close to that in some kinds of missionary service. Your current stress will more likely come when you face the overpowering force of physical temptation, where you learn that a shallow acceptance of the gospel does not have the power to cope with the forces of Darkness. It may come when your prayers seem to go unanswered, or when you run into some experience or some person who brings Satanic persuasion to bear against you. When those times come, your testimony must be more than a fair weather faith. It must be a mighty strand of cable, powerful enough to resist the shafts of the Adversary.
To develop such strong testimonies, we must first purify our desires. If we want a testimony, if we want to draw close to God, even if we want eternal life—all these things will be ours, if we desire them, so long as we do not desire other things more. We show what we really want by what we do—not by what we say. So if we say we believe in God, but some things in our life suggest otherwise, then we probably want something else more than eternal life. It might be our friends, it might be physical pleasures, or it might be that we just don’t want the Church bothering us with meetings and rules. Our desires will govern our choices, one by one and day by day, until our lives eventually add up to what we really want them to be.
Next, we need to live worthily so the Lord’s Spirit can be near us to build our faith and testimony. Brigham Young said: “Pray for the Lord to inspire your hearts. Ask for wisdom and for knowledge. It is our duty to seek after it. Let us seek, and we shall find; but as for His coming down here to pour His Spirit upon you, while you are aiming after the vain and frivolous things of the world; indulging in all the vanity, nonsense, and foolery which surrounds you; drinking in all the filthy abominations which should be spurned from every community on the earth—so long as you continue this course, rest assured—he will not come near you.” (Journal of Discourses, 1:20.)
If you are trying to purify your desires and to live righteously, you are then in a position to build your faith in the three elements that make up a complete and deeply rooted testimony of the gospel—reason, feeling, and experience.
I needn’t spend a long time talking about the reasonableness of the gospel message, because for most of us that speaks for itself. Yet I have become increasingly aware that our religious faith is a more intellectually sound position than you might think. I agree with Alma, who told the skeptical Korihor, “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion.” (Alma 30:44.)
Scientific evidence tells us that if this earth were much closer to the sun, all life here would burn up. If it were much farther away, all life here would freeze. When I see the wind whipping up its force in this part of the country, I can only imagine how it would be if the elements weren’t held in check by divine power. If we were truly at the mercy of arbitrary natural forces, wind and sand and tidal waves would bat this planet around like a leaf in a storm.
What do you suppose are the odds that a tornado spinning through a junkyard could create a DC-10?
Evidence for the claims of Joseph Smith is growing stronger almost daily. You don’t have to take Joseph Smith’s testimony only on faith—there is compelling evidence to support him. When Joseph announced the Word of Wisdom, did he know that tobacco is addictive and causes lung cancer? No—and neither did anyone else in the scientific community. Consider his prophecy about the civil war. Consider his prophecy about his own people becoming mighty in the tops of the mountains in the West.
As you study the Book of Mormon, learn about the research on wordprints, which suggests that the book couldn’t have been written by a single author. Learn also about the Hebrew poetry form called “chiasmus.” Nobody had heard of chiasmus in Joseph’s day. But now that this striking literary form, as clear and rigid as a limmerick or a sonnet, has been discovered in ancient Hebrew literature, it has also been discovered in the Book of Mormon. Those who wrote on the golden plates knew and used Hebrew literary forms in their reformed Egyptian language but Joseph Smith didn’t even know he had translated in these forms.
Then there are Thor Heyerdahl’s expeditions in primitive boats across the Pacific Ocean and later the Atlantic. These trips show that small, crudely made boats could sail those distances on strong ocean currents. Despite great efforts to do so, no one has been able to cast serious doubt on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. So why doesn’t everybody believe it? Because God does not allow the case to become so compelling that we are forced to believe. Man’s agency is too fundamental to be compromised.
And yet—if your testimony is based completely on such evidence as this, it is still more cobweb than nylon strand, because reason has such a hard time coping with emotion, and because science and history never do lead to absolute conclusions—for or against religious or other claims. Those disciplines are inherently subject to new evidence and new interpretations of old evidence.
So, we must buttress our testimony with spiritual feelings and experiences. The scriptures are full of references to the influence of the Spirit on our feelings. Alma 32 talks about swelling motions—feeling a good seed begin to sprout and grow, after it has enlightened our understanding (reason). Nephi talks to his brothers about being past feeling, that they could not feel the words of the Spirit. (See 1 Ne. 17:45.) Elsewhere Nephi tells us that the Holy Ghost carries its power to the hearts of the children of men. (See 2 Ne. 33:1.) Thus, the men who talked with the resurrected Christ without recognizing him on the road to Emmaus said in recognition of him afterward, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?” (Luke 24:32.) The feeling can also be one of peace rather than burning. As the Lord said to Oliver Cowdery: “Cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
“Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22–23.)
I remember so clearly the night as a young missionary when I first became aware of the Holy Ghost bearing witness to a sincere investigator we were teaching. As my companion bore his testimony to her about the Resurrection, tears filled her eyes, and I began to feel as if my heart would burst from the overflowing of spiritual force. When I asked my companion after that meeting what had been happening to us, he said wisely and in a tender kind of love for me, “Oh, Elder Hafen, that was the Holy Ghost, bearing witness of the truth. There is no other feeling like that. We may not feel it often. You can’t turn it on and off like a water tap. But when, in a rare moment, it happens to come, you know what it is.”
This thought calls to mind the verse from Kahlil Gibran on love, in which I will substitute the word Spirit for the word love:“Think not that you can control the course of the Spirit, for the Spirit, if it finds you worthy, controls your course.”
On a more recent occasion, I felt that same Spirit again, as did our children. We were gathered at one of those multifamily home evenings at the grandparents’ house, with paper plates and chunks of hamburger buns and potato chips strewn all over the backyard, little children running and laughing with their cousins in a totally happy kind of bedlam. Then Grandpa mentioned that he would like to have everyone come into the living room and sit down. All the little grandkids stopped playing and trooped into the house, where they sat down until they filled the living room floor. Everyone was very quiet, without knowing quite why.
Grandpa stood in the center of the room, supporting himself with the back of a chair. He told us that he had been having trouble recovering from recent surgery, and felt the need for a blessing. He asked his sons-in-law to anoint him and bless him through the power of the priesthood. We surrounded his chair and performed the ordinance, with great love and respect for him. As we finished, he thanked us for our faith and prayers, and bore his testimony to his posterity. He seemed so quietly majestic standing there talking to us. He told us that all he ever wants after he dies is to live with the very people who were in that room. Then he was done.
That was it—no song or prayer everyone just began shuffling around to go pick up in the yard and clean up the kitchen.
Just then, one of our sons, then about twelve, and a boy not easily given to expressing personal feelings, came over to me. He was brushing away the tears from his eyes, and asking, “Dad, what’s the matter with me? Why am I crying? I’m not sad—I’m happy for Grandpa, and I just love him, and I want him to get better.” I said, “Why don’t you go tell him that?” He ran over to his grandpa and hugged him tight and said something to him, and then came back to me, even more visibly affected than before. He still wanted to know why he was reacting as he was. Then I told him, as my missionary companion had told me so many years before, that this was the Holy Ghost. He was feeling love and appreciation for the priesthood and was being told by the Spirit that what he sensed was true and good. Sensing that this was one of those rare teaching moments, I asked him never to forget what this felt like, because it was the witness of the Spirit.
So there will be both reason and feeling in our experiences with testimony. Yet we know that even spiritual feelings can be forgotten and that sometimes we may confuse lesser emotions for true spiritual experiences. Furthermore, our emotions can be led astray by people who would manipulate them, and reason may not have the longlasting power against adversity that we will need if we are not to stand on borrowed light. What else is needed?
The third element in the growth of testimony is simply experience—the test of time. The truth needs a little time to bear its fruits, and after all, by their fruits shall ye know them. In chapter 32, Alma talks about what happens to the seed after we have nourished it and watered it, when it begins to take root and sprout, then the heat of the sun comes and scorches it. What kind of seed is it then? If it is good, and if we have taken care of it, it will withstand adversity, and even grow stronger because of the adversity. [Alma 32] Moroni put it this way: “Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” (Ether 12:6.) It’s like paying tithing time after time when you know you can’t afford to, and then being blessed with new ideas to better manage your remaining funds, and suddenly you know something that non-tithepayers simply cannot understand.
As Alma’s wonderful analogy suggests, a testimony is a living, growing thing. When we desire it enough to give it a chance, we plant it. It begins to swell and finally to sprout. Then our faith has been rewarded, yet we still don’t know everything. Time passes. We nourish the little seedling. We weed it, guard it, help it to take root, all in the face of adversity. And then finally, one day, as Alma writes, “ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, … and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled.” (Alma 32:42.)
Brigham Young put it this way: “‘How shall I know?’ says one. By obeying the commandments given to you. The Lord has said, Go into the waters of baptism and be baptized for the remission of your sins, and you shall receive a witness that I am telling you the truth. How? By baptism and the laying on of hands alone? No. By seeing the sick healed? No, but by the spirit that shall come unto you through obedience, which will make you feel like little children, and cause you to delight in doing good, to love your Father in Heaven and the society of the righteous. Have you malice and wrath then? No, it is taken from you, and you feel like the child in its mother’s lap. You will feel kind to your children, to your brothers and sisters, to your parents and neighbors, and to all around you; you will feel a glow, as of fire, burning within you; and if you open your mouths to talk, you will declare ideas which you did not formerly think of. They will flow into your mind, even such as you have not thought of for years. The scriptures will be opened to you, and you will see how reasonable everything is which this or that Elder teaches you. Your hearts will be comforted, you can lie down and sleep in peace, and wake up with feelings as pleasant as the breezes of summer. This is a witness to you.”
Let me conclude with a few images that occur to me when I think in a general way of what it means to have a real testimony:
It means being alone in the mountains on a clear evening, looking at all those stars, and sensing that you are not alone; that heaven is a real place, and God a real person; and that he knows and cares about you.
Having a testimony means feeling the strength to control yourself when the forces of evil would have you do otherwise. It’s realizing that this year, you don’t feel comfortable with those old jokes and words your friends used to say; sensing that you’ve come a long way since starting to clean up your mind, so you now know that you really can change, and grow, and repent.
It means bouncing a little child on your knee, and noticing for the first time that his smile is like your own, and then when you suffer because he does, you understand what it means to have joy in your posterity.
It’s being far away from home, and there getting acquainted with some decent person who doesn’t know anything about the Church; then feeling kind of good inside as you tell him about Joseph Smith, and as you answer all his questions, you say to yourself, it’s true—what I am saying is really true; and you want your friend to understand, for his own sake; and when he begins to see it, somehow, you see it better too.
It’s finally having something to really pray about, and falling on your knees to just talk, and plead; and knowing that somehow, somewhere, somebody is listening, and caring about what you are saying.
It’s kneeling over the marriage altar in a sacred room in the robes of the holy priesthood, taking your sweetheart by the hand, half-listening to the great promises being said over you by a man who has authority, seeing in your mind’s eye the panorama of your whole life pass before you, feeling overcome with gratitude that you made it, even though you’re not sure you deserve it; then suddenly realizing that God really has accepted you—the two of you—and that no matter what it has cost or how hard it has been, this was worth waiting for; and somehow you just know you can be together always, if only you can make yourself remember that that is even more worth waiting for.
It’s seeing someone you love in temple clothes, in a casket, and hearing through your grief a still, small voice assure you with a deep peace that, somehow, it’s not all over, and you’ll be with that person again. It is the peace that surpasses understanding, as your heart tells you things your mind does not know.
And even though you can’t easily find the words to describe what it feels like for you, and sometimes it seems too sacred and personal to talk about even if you could find the words, the important thing is that you know the gospel is true. It really is true. Then, if you continue to purify your desires and keep searching to find God, that glorious quest will guide you and fulfill you all the days of your life.
And “if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.”