Friday, January 4, 2013

On the edges of testimony

More than once I’ve made reference to something Theodore M. Burton taught me about testimony. He was the Area Administrator (sort of a pre-cursor to an Area President, I suppose) in Germany while I was on my mission and spoke at a zone conference I attended.

Elder Burton was an awesome teacher, and I would have loved to have been in one of his chemistry classes (despite my ineptitude for the sciences), just to hear him teach.

Here’s what he said about testimony: when our testimony is new and small, it is like a small circle. There is little we know, but there is also only a small border between what we know and what we don’t know. As our testimony grows, the border with the unknown also expands, so that we become more aware of what we do not know. Theoretically what we don’t know actually shrinks a bit as our testimony grows, but our awareness of what we don’t know increases.

I have since that talk been somewhat intrigued by that border.

And that intrigue has a dual impact on me. On the one hand, I peer into the darkness, willing to walk by faith a step at a time to learn more. On the other hand, I’m reminded of that old story told in standards lessons about the drivers applying for a job who are asked how close they can drive to the side of the cliff: the job goes to the one who stays as far away from the edge as possible.

To torture yet another metaphor, is it better to patrol the borders or to retreat to the safety of the center? I think the answer is yes to both. My own fear is that if I sit only in the center, then over time, my testimony in the center is likely to be stronger, but my overall testimony is likely to shrink somewhat. If, however, I spend all my time on the border, I am likely to succumb to fatigue, and I will also likely end up weaker than when I started.

So in my own life, I find myself moving from the center to the border and back again. I do not shy away from questions that are difficult for me. But I also do not demand instant answers to every question. And I find regular opportunities to retreat to the center for spiritual R&R. My retreats to the center often involve reminding myself of what I already know and believe: I visit the temple; I partake of the sacrament; I read favorite scripture stories. My excursions to the border may involve more challenging reading – for me often involving church history, but not always. Sometimes I return to nagging and unanswered questions of doctrine or scriptural interpretation.

I have used this pattern for the three decades since my mission and found it works for me. I’ve had enough successful trips to the edge in which I’ve been able to defend and even expand the border of my testimony. It is sometimes in the discussions that result from those trips – either with trusted friends or family members, or just in my own private pondering – that I find the light that allows me to take a further step.

I have also learned that my border is not the same as someone else’s. I may have more or less tolerance for a trip to the edge than someone else on a given day. And I’ve learned I cannot drag someone along with me. (Well, I suppose I could, but it wouldn’t do them or me any good.) I have grown weary, for instance, of the devil’s advocate approach to High Priest Group lessons in which someone perches on the edge trying to goad the rest of the group to come along for the fun of the ride. (And I’ve consciously tried to avoid taking that approach while teaching for some time.)

But in the spirit of mourning with those that mourn and comforting those who stand in need of comfort, I’ve found that I am surprisingly (to me) resilient even when a companion needs to question his own border crossing, even if I haven’t resolved the matter for myself. For whatever reason, the Lord has granted me the grace to recognize that even if his question is not important to me or not on my radar, it is important to my companion. There was a time when such a situation might have threatened my testimony’s center, but it no longer does.

How do you navigate the edges of your testimony?

BTW, you can find my New Year's post on testimony at Real Intent here.


  1. I taught a lesson last night to a new convert family, and maybe I taught the same principle as you did in this posting. I believe that the fundamentals are more important than the details -- I really do. And those fundamentals are first, that "Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself to all nations" and that he has stretched forth his arm again to restore the priesthood to the earth in these latter days; and second, faith, hope, and charity.

    My lesson was on the plan of salvation, but I really don't like reducing the gospel to a mechanistic "plan" -- we have been given very small glimpses into the life after death, and even smaller glimpses (essentially none!) into the life before birth, but we have no details and there is no need for us to argue among ourselves about small details -- faith, hope, and charity in this life are what is important, and everything else will fall into place.

  2. I think you are wise to avoid a mechanistic 'plan' discussion -- the Plan is one of Happiness because of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It's taken me a long time to come to understand the need to focus on the plan rather than the roadmap.

    I have to think more about your comment that faith, hope and charity are what's important and that everything else will fall into place. The idea intrigues me, but I'm also sensitive to the need for ordinances (that show us the power of God) and covenants (that bind us to Him), for instance.

  3. I really like this post and identify with it quite a bit. In studying the gospel unanswered and nagging questions inevitably come up. Early on I would get frustrated when the answer was not immediately forthcoming. I learned that if I would return to the center of my testimony, continue studying, and wait on the Lord that the answer would eventually come. Usually quite some time later and when I wasn't looking for it. I realized that many times I just didn't have the life experience at the time of asking the question that the answer would have been meaningful.

  4. BKM, I've had exactly the experience you describe about getting answers to some questions much later when I wasn't really looking for it.

    The Buddha said when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I think that's true for gospel answers, too.

  5. Ordinances and covenants are part of faith and hope -- I don't participate in ordinances or make covenants for social reasons or to check the boxes on my ticket -- and one's ordinances and covenants will have ZERO value if he or she has no faith, hope, or charity. I participate in ordinances and make covenants because of my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and my trust in him.

    A person who focuses on ordinances and covenants might be like the person who gains the whole world but in the end loses his own soul. They aren't ends in their own right. But faith, hope, and charity both means and ends.

  6. ji, I see your point. There are few things by themselves that are an end unto themselves in the gospel.

    Of course the Lord taught the first two great commandments are to love God and love one another -- also embodied in faith, hope and charity. Presumably when we make covenants and signify them by ordinances, we do so out of our love for God, and our subjection to Him and His will for us. I agree -- if we simply do them to tick a box then we have fallen short of the point.

    Indeed the Lord revealed the point of ordinances is so that the power of God can be made known unto men.

  7. I strongly identify with how you describe this--going back and forth between the borders and the center of testimony. We revisit the center for stability, and we go to the borders for growth.

    I find that navigating the edges is best with scripture study, then experimenting upon the word.

  8. Michela, I really like the idea of thinking about the trips to the edge as part of experimenting on the word. I'd not thought of it that way, but it's a good fit with my experience. The edge is the place where I am, like in the hymn Lead Kindly Light, taking a step into the darkness and trusting that the Lord will guide me.