What is a Testimony (and Why Do You Want to Bear It to Me)?

If you come to LDS services on the first Sunday of the month, you might be a little surprised at how the central meeting (we call it the Sacrament meeting) goes down. Usually, our Sacrament meetings encourage very little audience participation, although no one has told the babies that. We sing hymns together, say “Amen” at the end of prayers and spiritual messages, and partake of the sacrament. But most of the meeting consists of assigned speakers who give prepared messages that we more-or-less quietly listen to.

But on the first Sunday we have our “testimony meeting,” which is more like open mic night at the tabernacle. Members, including children, are encouraged to come to the podium and “bear their testimonies” about whatever gospel subject they want.

Bare your what?

Every faith tradition has its own language quirks, and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we use the term “testimony” differently than in the secular world or even in many other Christian churches. In the context of Latter-day Saints, you will most frequently hear them use the word “testimony” in one of three contexts: Gaining, losing, or bearing a testimony. (You might also hear a single man or woman complimented for having a “beautiful testimony,” which is Mormon-code for “kind of homely, but probably good marriage material”).

Taking the last first, it isn’t unusual to hear at the end of every talk, lesson, or missionary discussion someone say that they want to “bear” or “share” their testimony. Even in casual conversation, a member of the Church who is flustered by a question about doctrine might go to a default of “I have a testimony that…” rather than venture out on a subject that they don’t think they can express well.

In this context, “I want to bear my testimony” simply means “I testify.” (It should not be surprising that, in a Church whose bi-annual conferences consist of five two-hour meetings in two days, our members lack an economy of words). It is an expression of belief in the tenets of the faith. So a person might bear their testimony about Christ, the Bible, or the Book of Mormon. They might share a faith-promoting experience that has shored up those beliefs. We share these things with one another and to those outside our faith with whom we are discussing the Gospel in order to help establish the truth of what we believe. We stand as “witnesses” and give testimony just as a witness at trial provides testimony to establish the truth of certain facts. Our testimony meeting are a way for us to strengthen each other by sharing and confirming our common convictions.

Granted, such “testimonies” can sometimes take strange turns, with people sharing travelogues, giving a mini-sermon, or trailing off into stream of conscious soliloquies that seem to relate to nothing. My personal favorite is children ratting out their parents for not keeping this commandment or that. Most Latter-day Saints won’t openly admit it, but we kind of look forward to these moments. They are the salsa that spice up the testimony chips.

As to “gaining” or “losing” a testimony, we generally are referring to something that might otherwise be called one’s “personal conviction” or “faith.” It goes to the heart of our belief that every person has the right to know for themselves–through the revelatory power of the Holy Ghost– that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the teachings of the gospel are true. One who “gains a testimony” is a person who has reached a level of belief sufficient to take action (to repent, to be baptized, or to commit to becoming more holy. One who “loses their testimony” is someone who no longer believes and therefore is no longer valiant in the faith. They may become less active in the Church or leave it altogether.

As I have gotten older, I have been less satisfied with this use of the word. It suggests that a testimony is a “thing” that you either have or don’t have. Like roller skates. But this binary concept reduces one’s faith in God to a complicating simplicity. At what point do I have a testimony, or at what point have I lost it? Am I in or out? I think this leads to considerable testimonial angst, especially among youth or those who have run up against challenges to their faith. They get frustrated when they aren’t able to seize the prize of a testimony, put it on their mantle, and feel their mission is accomplished.

I prefer to think of a testimony as measure of our relationship with our Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ. It is a continuum, with “believing nothing” on one end and a perfect knowledge of Christ on the other. For most of us we are in constant motion in either direction throughout our lives. For me, my testimony is less what I have than where I am and which direction my feet are pointed.

Because of that, I try not to express that I “have a testimony” of Christ. I prefer to say that I believe Jesus is the Son of God and my Savior, that I rely and trust on Him, and that I am continuing in my struggle to be like Him. Rather than tell you that I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, I would rather tell you than I have read it, prayed about it, and that its teachings have filled me with joy and brought me closer to God and his Christ. I will tell you what I believe through faith and experience and what I believe by choice, despite not having a perfect understanding.

My testimony isn’t big or small, strong or weak. It just is what it is: A status update on my relationship with my Savior. And, fortunately, that relationship seems to be getting better, even though one of us chronically falls short.


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