I recently had a discussion with young man wrestling his way through some testimony issues. As we talked through some of his questions and frustrations, one of the things he mentioned was experiencing feelings of inadequacy during fast and testimony meetings when one person after another stood before the congregation and ticked off all of the things they “knew.” “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet.” “I know that Christ lives.” “I know the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” This sincere young man felt that either he wasn’t getting the spiritual confirmations everyone else is getting, or these members are overstating the strength of their testimonies.
As I thought about this, I realized that he has a point. I cannot remember the last time I heard someone couch their testimony in terms of what they “believe,” as opposed to what they “know.” For me, much of my testimony is based upon beliefs, not iron-clad knowledge. Like most people, I have not enjoyed dramatic spiritual manifestations that would justify bold announcements of what I know. But I tend to state my testimony in the same “I know” terms.
Perhaps it is just a matter of social convention. When primary children are being taught how to give their testimonies, we tend to teach them to use “know speak” instead of “believe speak.” So we have three-year old Sunbeams testifying that they know the Book of Mormon is true, even though they can’t read the front cover of the book, and knowing that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet when they might not be able to pick him out of a police lineup. We learn early on to use that language, and we stick with it.
It might also be a pride thing. If ten people before me have announced what they know, do I look like my testimony is lacking if I say that I believe? Are people going to think that I’m hedging my bets?
There is scriptural authority for using either term. Alma speaks of testing our beliefs with the metaphor of planting a seed. When we act upon our beliefs and see positive results, in Alma’s view, we have a knowledge of truth, because we have seen its results. From that standpoint, many of us really do “know.” We’ve seen the positive effect on our lives from living the commandments, and having put gospel to a test we “know” that it is true.
On the other hand, we have the testimony of Peter, who was asked by the Savior in the sixth chapter of John whether the Twelve would leave him as did many other disciples. Peter answered with “We believe and are sure that thou art the Christ.” This is a slightly nuanced approach. It says that even though there may be things in the gospel that are unsettling to us, our belief is sufficiently strong to make us “sure” that the gospel message is true. It reminds me of Nephi saying that he doesn’t know all things, but he does know enough to persist on the gospel path.
I think that the virtue of belief needs some rehabilitating in the Church. The truth of it is that when we speak of knowledge with reference to our testimonies, we typically are referring to our level of confidence in what we believe. We believe so strongly, we feel comfortable labeling our convictions as knowledge. We believe, and are sure. It may be more helpful to those new in the faith or momentarily struggling in their testimonies, to hear that we remain faithful because of what we believe.
The wonderful hymn, “I Believe in Christ,” is a powerful example of a moving testimony based upon belief. As an apostle, a special witness of Christ, Elder Bruce R. McConkie certainly would have been justified in using “know speak.” I am quite sure that his testimony was far more developed than anything I can hope to enjoy in the near future. But the repeated expression of “I Believe” not only is poetic, it is also honest and hopeful. And the strength of the testimony suffers nothing by being expressed in terms of belief.
I don’t believe in “rules” for testimonies, as do some people in the Church. Bearing a testimony is not a performance, nor does it need to confirm with rigid requirements as to content. So if someone wants to talk about what they “know,” I assume that they are using the word in the Alma “seed” sense and not the Joseph Smith “grove” sense, and I am fine with that. And if someone tells me what they believe, I welcome them into the fellowship of those of us who have found that belief is sufficient to weather the storms that cross our paths.
And for those who don’t know that they’ll ever know, I suggest that–for now–you give belief a chance.