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Lies and Testimony

Every fast and testimony meeting I can’t help but ponder what people mean by what they say. I suppose that only the person themselves really understands what they are trying to do by going up to the stand and speaking. One person might be speaking of real experiences and using better words to express themselves, while another person might be trying to express real yearning and feelings but using the wrong words.

It’s easy to judge the latter person and dismiss their attempts to express themselves. While one could easily point out the errors in their expressions, even to the point of calling them lies, maybe the judgers should take a deep breath and relax a little. I don’t think those people are necessarily lying or deceiving, let’s take a look at what a lie is:

LIE, noun 1. A criminal falsehood; a falsehood uttered for the purpose of deception; an intentional violation of truth. Fiction, or a false statement or representation, not intended to deceive, mislead or injure, as in fables, parables and the like, is not a lie.

I’ve come to a point where I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to most of the people getting up to bear their “testimonies.” I don’t think that most people are “lying” if they use incorrect language to express themselves. I don’t think those people are intentionally trying to deceive others; something else is happening.

Let’s look at what defines a testimony:

TEST’IMONY, n. [L. testimonium.] A solemn declaration or affirmation made for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact. Such affirmation in judicial proceedings,may be verbal or written, but must be under oath. Testimony differs from evidence; testimony is the declaration of a witness, and evidence is the effect of that declaration on the mind, or the degree of light which it affords. – Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

I’m sure there are some that go up to the stand and use it like their own personal Rameumptom, but the vast majority of people I have witnessed seem to be focused on trying to make a “solemn declaration” or attempting to “establish some fact.” Whether that testimony constitutes “evidence” in the ears and minds of the audience depends on “the degree of light which it affords.”

If we are charitable and full of patience and love, it’s amazing what the Spirit can teach us and who the Spirit can teach us through.

I’m a little ashamed to admit it but I’ve spent several sacrament meetings in a kind of agony and even embarrassment over some of the things that I’ve heard spoken over that pulpit (maybe you have as well). Sure, maybe I do have a better understanding of a few things to where I could have said what they were trying to say better, or more accurately. Sure, maybe that person should have used the word “believe” instead of “know” for just about everything they were referencing in their testimony. Sure, it’s probably likely that every single child that gets up and rattles of the phrase “I know the Church is true” has no idea what that means.

But how often do we use the wrong words? How often are we at a loss of what words we can even use to describe our own spiritual experiences? Joseph Smith once wrote:

“Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were [total] darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.” JS, Kirtland, OH, to William W. Phelps, [Independence, MO], 27 Nov. 1832, in JS Letterbook 1, p. 4.

Joseph Smith lamented the fact of how insufficient our language is at communicating many things. We find this same thing referenced in the Doctrine and Covenants:

“Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”
Doctrine and Covenants 1:24

So maybe we can give people a little slack for the words choices they make when trying to share things that are important to them. Maybe we can try to see and hear beyond the words to the intent of the individual. Maybe we can appreciate the yearnings of a soul instead of looking for ways to dismiss them or to make them an “offender for a word.” (Isaiah 29:21)

I’m just as guilty of this as the many others that I’ve heard express the same frustrations. I know there are probably several other great points that can be brought up, but for as long as I’ve pondered this, it seems that the best thing to do is cultivate patience, charity and understanding. I don’t think that Jesus Christ would sit there with a bitter face in an LDS fast and testimony meeting. He might with some people, but for the vast majority, I think he would appreciate people’s attempt to put into words their personal yearnings, feelings, experiences and even knowledge.

What do you think?

  • How do you feel about fast and testimony meetings?
  • How do you reconcile how you feel about what people share and how they share it?
  • Richard J. Nobbe III

    I’ve wanted to respond to this post for awhile, but haven’t had the opportunity to really give it the attention it deserves.

    In prefacing my remarks, remember to take my history into account. I was a practicing Catholic for 18 years, and this definitely molded the way I think, pray, worship, etc…

    One of the most remarkable facets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the lay clergy. It’s astonishing! There’s nothing else like it in all the world. It’s almost a foreign concept to people outside of the church. We are pastors, priests, clerks, auditors, custodians, scout leaders, welfare managers, missionaries, evangelists, teachers, building supervisors, secretaries, administrators, common judges, babysitters, emergency response personnel, chefs, and on and on and on. And we do this for free – during our “spare time” when we’re not doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, graphic designers, sheriffs, waitresses, tailors, farmers, etc…

    I don’t know if I can totally grasp the scope of everything we do. As I say, it’s truly remarkable. Now compare that to the rest of the Christian world who goes to church for an hour on Sundays, (I know there are exceptions to this). They go for an hour to sit, listen, sing, worship, take part in ceremony, maybe catch a few minutes of sleep, and then they go home until the same time next week. The Pastors/Priests/Deacons of these churches are mostly graduates of extensive religious study. Most have studied at universities or seminaries for years and have earned several degrees. They find jobs at churches around the world and receive compensation for the ecclesiastical work they do. These Pastors/Priests/Deacons are trained orators. With few exceptions, they control the meetings and just about all that goes on in them. Few members of the congregation ever get past the middle pew. They give little thought to the order and structure of the meeting. Unfortunately, they also give little thought to the doctrine being taught.

    Contrast this with what goes on in a Mormon chapel. It’s amazing. And what’s more is that every member gets to give the talks, give the prayers, and yes – share testimonies. What a marvelous blessing that is.

    I’ve come to learn for myself that fast and testimony meetings are “safe schools for the opportunity of spiritual growth.” The natural man is not used to talking in terms of spiritual things. It is foreign language to him. Fast and testimony meetings are then opportunities for the spiritual man to overcome the natural man, and that’s a difficult thing for a lot of members to do. On this earth, we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. Fast and testimony meeting then is a “training ground” for us to remember things that we’ve always known. It’s a chance for us to remember who we really are, and who we really can become.

    President Packer said this, “Oh, if I could teach you this one principle: a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!” When we walk up to bear our testimonies, we are little children learning to walk for the first time. The natural man faces a big crowd – and the natural man wants very much to earn the respect and admiration of this crowd. He secretly wishes to rule over them because this would give him great carnal security. But instead, when we yield to the Spirit of God, we put off the natural man and become, albeit for a short time, true sons and daughters of God. In this moment the natural man leaves, the spiritual man is awakened in us, and as we bear our testimonies, a small ray of celestial sunlight creeps in and lets us know that what we are saying is true. Thus, bearing testimony is a great key that unlocks this sunlight – especially for the person bearing it.

    So it’s my opinion that fast and testimony meetings are designed primarily for the testator.

    Now can we all benefit from testimony? Of course. Does it always happen? Of course not. There have been moments when the spirit is so strong in the room that even babies are silent. I think that more often than not though, fast and testimony meetings can seem like some creepy circus of thoughts, opinions, and statements that make us uncomfortable at best and downright horrified at worst. I think the trick is to remember who the meeting is really intended for, and I strongly believe that the primary purpose for such a meeting is to provide testators with a “safe school for the opportunity of spiritual growth.”

    If we look at fast and testimony meetings in this light, two things become self-evident. First, I am going to try to love everyone who gets up there and is willing to try to yield to the Spirit of God, and second, we all need this experience for ourselves as often as possible. I’m not suggesting we go up every month or that we need to take a lot of time in this endeavor, But I am suggesting that this needs to be part of our spiritual diet.

    Perhaps from time to time there is one who goes up to the pulpit with an intent not to hearken unto the Spirit of the Lord. This of course would be wickedness and nothing therefrom would enlighten the testator. Rather it would bring condemnation. But out of all the testimonies given in sacrament meeting, I can honestly not think of a single time this has ever happened. If we think we are hearing these often, perhaps it is we who need reassess our thoughts and feelings.

    A lot of people cringe when children are going up to bear a testimony. I say how sad! This goes against a lot of what I believe to be true. The Savior specifically says, “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me…” (Matt 19:14). Little children are learning how to testify, and how beautiful is that! Do they say the same things over and over again? Yes they do! Isn’t that beautiful? They are learning truth and sharing truth. Hmm, I seem to remember a lot of things in the church that are repeated over and over again. Do ordinances come to mind? We wouldn’t cringe every time the Sacrament was blessed because it’s the same prayer – would we?

    Some people suggest that little children should reserve their testimonies for primary because primary is the “appropriate” place for children to practice. If that were true, wouldn’t most of us end up in the primary room during the 2nd hour? Don’t we adults have as much or more to learn than they, those who are the closest to Christ?

    I’ve heard many diverse testimonies as a member of the church. In Cleveland, where I used to live, it was not uncommon for some African American sisters to get up and sing. A former preacher walked the length of the rostrum back and forth. One guy got up and played the clarinet. We need to remember that regardless of the results of whatever happens, what prompted that person to go up? There was a genuine spark – an intent to serve, to love, to help, to express kindness, to speak the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I’m not an expert on how to give a testimony. I struggle myself with thoughts and feelings I have, and how to express them. I don’t know what others think of me when I come down from the pulpit, but I know how I feel, and I know when I’ve tasted a ray of celestial sunlight.