A series of long stories, people crying, uncomfortable silences, and momentary transcendencies: these are our testimony meetings. I must admit, sometimes I dread testimony meeting. Sometimes the sharp vulnerability of being confronted with such profound subjectivity makes me want to run and hide. This feeling is more about my own difficulties with vulnerability and shame than anything else, because the truth is that in between the cringe-worthy pity-parties, people scrambling for tissues, and that dreadful feeling that you might have to go next, lie some very profound opportunities for developing unity and emotional health within our communities. Opportunities that sometimes, tragically, pass us by.
A Young Lesbian Shares her Testimony
Back in June of 2017, a twelve-year-old girl named Savannah got up in testimony meeting to share her testimony. In her testimony, she came out to the fellow members of her congregation as a lesbian. And instead of showing support for a young person and her unique experiences, instead of embracing and celebrating diversity in our congregations, the presiding priesthood leaders turned off her microphone, and told her to sit down. She walked away from the podium in tears.
I realize that I already sound biased and prescriptive with this situation, but I have a hard time being objective about this. Is this how Jesus Christ would deal with this young woman sharing her testimony? On the contrary, I think Jesus Christ would have let her finish speaking. If there was anything that needed to be corrected, I think he would have done so afterwards instead of telling her to shut up and sit down. And I think He would have used her example to teach the rest of us a lesson about the courage it takes to stand out and be different, the courage to “let your light so shine” (Matt. 5:16). The words, “of such is the kingdom of Heaven” also come to mind (Mark 10:14).
Maybe the presiding priesthood leaders weren’t prepared for someone to stand out so much from what we normally hear in testimony meetings. It must have been alarming for them, especially as people used to hearing testimonies that are so indistinguishable from each other, to hear a twelve-year-old girl come out as gay and proceed to share her testimony about God’s love for her. Whatever their reasoning, they missed an opportunity to listen with compassion and show solidarity towards someone who was different.
To hear all of Savannah’s story, please listen to this episode of the Mormon Mental Health podcast.
Members of One Body, Parts of Something Greater
By now, Savannah’s story is old news, but I felt it necessary to revisit this story in the context of a conversation about fast and testimony meetings. This was, after all, one isolated incident. The leadership of a different ward or stake might have handled this situation very differently. But I think this incident is indicative of a bigger problem. It may be the case that a lot of the testimonies we hear conform to each other so much that they almost sound scripted—in fact, when children get up to share testimonies, sometimes they are. Initially, there is nothing wrong with this. When a lot of people of one congregation all have similar backgrounds (i.e. white, middle-class people born into the Church), of course their testimonies are going to start sounding the same. The problem is when we get the idea in our heads that testimonies should sound a certain way; when we go from making an objective observation to being prescriptive (i.e. the way the Zoramites in Alma 31 cast certain people out of their congregations, and had prescribed prayers, or testimonies; a good example of how not to be). Once we go down this road, we start believing that all our experiences and the way we express them must be uniform and indistinguishable from each other. As soon as this notion pervades, we discourage people like Savannah from participating with the rest of us, we stop empathizing with people like Savannah whose lives are different from ours, and we silence their stories with our disapproval; and by doing these things, we miss great opportunities to love like the Savior loves.
We should ask ourselves, what does Jesus Christ value in His people? One answer comes from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:14-27. It’s a lot to paraphrase, but I’ll just share these two verses: “But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:20-21). Basically, we all matter to God in our infinite variations, including—perhaps especially—those people whose life experiences are very different from ours.
“I Know the Church is True”
Atheists sometimes have a hard time conversing with people of faith because Atheists demand more evidence of their belief systems than people of faith often do. This is where a lot of conversations between people of faith and atheists—and even where a lot of conversations between people of different faiths—get caught up in trying to prove the rightfulness or wrongfulness of a belief system. The truth is that all belief systems are theoretical and can only be “proved” to a limited degree. Beyond a certain point, we are all just going on faith.
For example, I believe in God. I believe that God is my Father in Heaven, and that He loves me. I believe that by the grace of Jesus Christ, I am saved from the physical and spiritual deaths preventing me from returning to God. To this, someone might say, “okay, prove it.” Well, I can’t. I believe these things. I have faith in them. But, as the Book of Mormon teaches, “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things” (Alma 32:21). Faith is hoping for things that cannot always be empirically proven. In a talk President Oaks gave about testimony, he said, “While there are some ‘evidences’ for gospel truths, scientific methods will not yield spiritual knowledge.”
So, why do we say the words, “I know…” over and over in our testimony meetings? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say, “I believe…,” or “I have confidence that…,” or even, “I hope…”? Some kinds of knowledge cannot be proven, but are purely spiritual by nature. An example similar to one President Oaks shared in his talk would be, “I know my wife loves me.” In this example, one could provide evidence of their wife’s love, but there would always be a chance of deception or self-deception. In this example, the person who “knows” their wife loves them is trusting in that relationship more than they know anything for sure. In other words, while two people may be perfectly faithful to each other, and could not be more convinced when they say they know they love each other, what they are calling knowledge is actually faith. And “faith is not a perfect knowledge.” Faith and trust are really just love in disguise, and if I could choose between having perfect knowledge or perfect love, I’d pick love every time.
So, there really isn’t anything wrong with saying, “I know the Church is true.” We all know we’re talking about spiritual knowledge (faith), and we don’t have to get caught up in semantics (too late, I guess). My only concern is that statements of absolute surety like “I know the Church is true,” are more about chasing doubts away, more about over-compensating for one’s lack of faith, or more about shooting down someone else’s version of truth than they are about authentic belief. In many cases, it might be more honest and authentic to say, “I believe the Church is true,” or “I have confidence that the Church is true,” or “I have faith that the Church is true,” than to say, “I know the Church is true.” Why not err on the side of humility and vulnerability than on the side of fear, shame, or even arrogance? In this, we could learn from the man who said, “help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:17-27).
Testimony meetings could be valuable opportunities to be vulnerable with other members of our own community. This could be the act that “knits our hearts together in love,” and diversifies the testimonies we share. We should see this as a golden opportunity, not shut off or shame people whose experiences and testimonies don’t conform to a standardized testimony.
Testimony meetings could also be a good opportunity to reflect on our own emotional health in relation to our beliefs. A good way to reflect on this could be to examine the emotions behind the “I know…” statements in your own testimony. If your testimony is more about fears of being wrong than sincere trust in something greater than yourself, you may want to reconsider the way you’re sharing your testimony, and reevaluate your emotions toward the gospel. Consider letting go of the pressure to be right all the time, of having to have all the answers (the baggage of being a member of the “only true Church”), and just be happy that even though none of us are perfect in our beliefs, God loves us anyway.
And remember, “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). If we love ourselves and the people around us, we have no reason to be afraid of our own vulnerable, humble, and beautiful little testimonies—or anyone else’s.