At the heart of Mormonism you will find a bold–some would say outlandish–claim: We proclaim that anyone who honestly studies our faith, particularly the Book of Mormon, and who sincerely asks God if it is true can know for themselves whether what we teach is from God.
This claim opens us to considerable derision, especially because we believe that the ultimate witness of the truth of what we teach comes from the Holy Ghost confirming that to a person’s heart and mind. Are you kidding? You base your commitment to this church based on a feeling? How insane is that?
I think there are two answers to that question. First, it isn’t an accurate description of what we believe. Mormons believe that a testimony of the gospel comes “by study, and also by faith.” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:118.) Indeed, from the earliest days of the Church the process of revelation always was described as including an intellectual component followed by a spiritual component. As explained in a revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1829, “Behold…you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” (Doctrine & Covenants 9:7-8, emphasis added).
Personally, when it comes to the Book of Mormon I have little patience for critics who are so convinced that it is false that they don’t see any need to actually read it. By the same token, I give little credence to anyone who tells me that he or she knows the Book of Mormon is true, but then tempers that testimony by saying that he or she has never read it. You simply cannot measure the worth of anything without evaluating it, and the Church has always stressed the importance of first understanding doctrine and then putting it to the test by praying about its truthfulness.
My second response is that of course we put a great deal of stock in a person’s internal convictions, in their feelings as to whether what we teach is true. Any religion has to. The very nature of faith is supernatural. Not in the little-girls-saying-“redrum” sense of the supernatural, but in the sense of internal communion with the Divine. If you are demanding strict scientific proof, no religion can help you much with that. We can’t expect God to show up on demand and hand us his i.d. card. Besides, when people do claim to have had direct observation of God (as did Joseph Smith), the same critics tell them they are off their rockers. So, if you categorically reject communication from God, then you don’t just have a problem with Mormons. You have a problem with religion.
If, on the other hand, you accept that God answers prayers, then how do you believe he does it, if not by speaking to our minds and hearts? Consider the story found in Luke when Christ appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. We are told that His identity was hidden from them as He expounded the scriptures to them and explained how they were fulfilled in Christ. Once their eyes were opened so that they recognized Him, they immediately chided themselves for not having recognized Him earlier. How had they fallen short? “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32, emphasis added). It wasn’t just the substance of what He taught them that was important, but also the impact of those teachings upon their hearts. They should have recognized that their visitor was Christ because he felt like Christ.
Is this scientific? Nope. Is it subjective? Yep. Could it easily be confused with the emotions of the moment? Sure. If it is something you never have experienced, you won’t understand it and might even make fun of it. That’s no surprise. I make plenty of fun of things I’ve never experienced and which, as a consequence, I think are silly. Like wearing kilts.
But if you have experienced the Holy Ghost telling you that something is true, it’s hard to argue with that impression. It is more than just a good feeling, but rather something that enters the heart and bears the “fruits of the Spirit,” which the Apostle Paul described as “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness [and] temperance.” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Mormons put a great deal of stock in the reality of this process, which we typically refer to as “personal revelation.” We really do believe, for example, that if you study the Book of Mormon, ponder its teachings, and ask God “with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4-5).
I started this post with the question of how it is that I came to know that Mormonism is true. I hope that it is evident from these posts that I have spent at least a little time thinking about the “intellectual” side of Mormonism, asking and exploring some of the more challenging questions about the Gospel. Those things have helped me to understand Mormonism. Believing it required something more.
I confess that my convictions are not based on a grand moment of bright lights, trumpets and angels. Instead, there have been countless moments of confirmation to my heart and mind. One of them occurred today as I prayed in the temple and had an unexpected but powerful confirmation that I stood on holy ground, that the principles I was learning were from God, and that He had not forgotten me in a time of trial.
I have had the same feeling innumerable times while studying the scriptures, teaching the Gospel to others, or performing sacred ordinances for my family members. On rare but wonderful occasions, I have witnessed or experienced miracles, most too sacred for me to share here. But each such experience has added strength and depth both to my faith as well as my understanding.
Yes, much of what I believe rests in my feelings, in what I believe to be the influence of the Holy Ghost. That’s how I became convinced that Jesus is the Christ; that the Bible and Book of Mormon are true scripture; that God still speaks to mankind both individually and through divinely authorized prophets. It is also how I became convinced that any honest seeker willing to ask God with real intent can experience what I’ve experienced and know what I know.