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.
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.