Certain recent events in my life have turned my thoughts toward the LDS practice of “bearing testimony.”*
My introduction to this principle occurred in my very first missionary discussion when I was investigating the Church. After the missionaries had completed their presentation, they said, “I know these things are true.” I remember thinking at the time, “How do they know these things are true?” And, “What is truth?”
As I got further into the conversion process, I witnessed many more examples of this strange (to me at the time) phenomenon of people “bearing their testimony” about the “truthfulness of the Gospel.”
This struck me as strange because it was foreign to me; I did not grow up in an evangelical tradition in which one “witnessed” about Christ. In fact, the couple of times I had been exposed to this in high school, I was very uncomfortable with it. One of the things about the practice that made me uncomfortable was the unspoken expectation that, once someone else had “testified,” I was supposed to do the same. If I didn’t, there was the (again unspoken) assumption, laid on the table, that there was something wrong with me. Or if they “felt the Spirit,” there was again the assumption that there was something wrong with me if I didn’t feel it, too. (Sound familiar?)
But as I moved deeper into the conversion process and witnessed people bearing their testimonies about the truth of the Book of Mormon, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, the restoration of the true church, etc., I felt a growing desire to “know” that, too. And as people talked about “feeling the Spirit,” and as I listened to the missionaries and others tell me that I could have my own “witness,” I increasingly found myself wanting to feel what they apparently felt.
Then came my first fast and testimony meeting. I think I had been forewarned that this meeting would be unlike any I had ever attended. They were right. But I took it in stride.
Gaining my testimony was sort of like going out and buying a nice, shiny new car. I was so proud of it, and I wanted to keep it spotless and sparkling, just like it was when I “drove it off the lot.”
Over the years, I learned that individual testimonies were each unique, sort of like automobiles: every car is different, even if they are the same make, model, year, color, etc. For even identical new cars differ slightly, and as they are driven by their new owners, they assume a unique character.
I also learned, frankly, to pretty much dread fast and testimony meetings. And I think I’m probably in pretty good company. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes (and I know you have, too) and/or I leaned forward in my bench, my head in my hands, wishing I were somewhere else – at least most of the time. I learned all about travel-monies, thank-a-monies, child-a-monies, the lectures, the dogmatic exhortations, etc., etc. At it did strike me odd at times how we each spent so much effort in telling each other that the Church is true and telling each other how we should “live the Gospel.”
But there were times when someone would get up and share something authentic about themselves and their life. And I would tune back in (after Sister So-and-So just finished telling us all about her trip to the Sacred Grove). They would talk about how they felt God’s presence in their lives. And it was uplifting.
But, as I have realized recently, the thing that made these anecdotes touching was not that the speakers were bearing “testimony” of anything, but that they were sharing a very human experience. Whether they realized it or not, what such people were really doing was bearing testimony of their own character and resilience in the face of (usually) difficult and challenging experiences. And that is what I found uplifting about their comments.
This is the best side of the practice of bearing testimony. There is, however, a dark side – when testimony is used as a weapon, whether through ignorance, arrogance, a desire to control, or malice.
For example, because missionaries are taught from a young age that they can invite the Spirit to bear testimony of a principle or statement if they themselves do so, many elders and sisters unwittingly (for the most part) think that, if they just bear testimony fervently and often enough, they can “get through” to people. And if people resist, they just need to do it harder.
Unfortunately, arrogance also motivates much testimony-bearing, when the idea behind it is to inform other people that they don’t know what is best for their lives, and if they’d just listen to them – the testimony-bearers – they’d “get” whatever it is that the messengers are trying to tell them.
Another BIG motivation for testimony-bearing in the Church is the desire to control the behavior and beliefs of others. This is quite often seen, unfortunately, in families, as parents use testimony-bearing as a last-ditch attempt to change or control something about the way their children are acting or thinking. It is used rampantly in youth programs through the Church, probably because youth are most susceptible to this.
The darkest side of testimony-bearing, however, is evidenced when the desire to control unites with malice. Unfortunately (I realize I’ve used that word a lot), many gay and lesbian Mormons have been the recipients of this type of testimony-bearing. You know how it goes: people close to you feel they have to “bear down” in “pure testimony” to try to get you to see the error of your ways, to try to convince you that you are a piece of s*it, but that God still loves you and you can “come back,” if only you change.
This is all done, of course, under the pretense of love. “We’re doing this because we love you. Can’t you see that?” But these same people are so busy bearing testimony of their own misunderstandings, prejudices and bigotry that they themselves become “past feeling”: they cannot feel the hurt of those against whom they are testifying; they willfully (whether consciously or not) shut themselves off from even trying to understand how their “loved ones” feel; and they debase us by telling us, and themselves, that we are under the influence of Satan (and therefore just listening to us opens themselves up to his influence as well).
And then, of course, when bearing down in pure testimony doesn’t work, there is nothing left but to shake the dust from their feet – in far too many cases (including my own) – and to leave us to “kick against the pricks.”
Such is the dark side of testimony.
* This post was originally published in August 2012 on my blog, Beyond the Closet Door (now closed). I will periodically repost some of the posts from that blog here.