The first installment in an occasional Sunday evening series highlighting individual spiritual and religious approaches.
“Seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every...sin...and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”
I don’t have the spiritual gift of innate, inherent belief. I have not “always known.” Instead, as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I feel that the Lord has gradually led me along, teaching me “line upon line and precept upon precept.” Although there are still many gaps in my spiritual and theological understanding, I am deeply grateful for the “great...cloud of witnesses” that surrounds me, as Paul puts it in his epistle to the Hebrews. In what follows, I hope to provide some insights into how I came to receive the many subtle, slight witnesses that have accumulated into the ever-growing “cloud.” These insights will mostly take the form of vignettes from my adolescence.
One of the main founts of these spiritual witnesses has been my daily devotional routine. Since probably the first or second grade, I have been in the habit of reading the scriptures daily. Of course, as an elementary schooler, I read a chapter every morning from the Book of Mormon solely because my parents had said I should. It was obedience plain and simple. However, as I grew and matured, this pattern of daily study and devotion evolved into something much more meaningful. But let me back up a little bit and describe the foundation upon which this habit of scripture study was built.
In the months leading up to my departure to serve a full-time mission for my church, I had been particularly anxious about the status of my testimony of my faith. Was it, and was I, truly ready to spend all my waking hours testifying to the truth of the Savior’s restoration message? I wondered. Would my fledgling faith stand up to this one-of-a-kind stress test, conducted in a strange, new Eastern European land? I think that these kinds of doubts are common to almost all prospective missionaries. The rigors of mission life are real and the prospect of subjecting one’s faith to daily attacks on the street and at the doorstep ought to be daunting.
However, an epistemological uneasiness had pervaded my adolescence as well. I often wondered, in places like priests quorum and during youth conference testimony meetings, why I couldn’t get up and say that I knew the Church was true. On some lesser level, I felt like Joseph Smith, who “wanted to get religion, too” and “feel and shout like the rest, but could feel nothing.”
Yet, unlike the Prophet Joseph—and thanks to what I see as Christ’s majestic project of latter-day Restoration which he had helped set in motion—I did feel something. The things that I was hearing over the pulpit and in the cultural hall from my peers tasted sweet. I honestly did love getting up (most) every day at 6 am to attend seminary. There was just something about the combination of scripture study, doughnuts, and that musty Mormon chapel smell in the mornings that made my school days better. Similarly, no matter how busy I was on Wednesday nights, or how tired I woke up feeling on Sunday mornings, I took genuine pleasure in being there for my fellow quorum members at mutual and during sacrament preparation. In all of this, I felt a pull that went deeper than mere camaraderie or desire for community. I knew that this was a special kind of community and that I was feeling a unique kind of camaraderie. But I couldn’t quite place a finger on what was setting it all apart. To put it another way, the “problem” was that I hadn’t yet translated my experiential knowledge of the gospel’s sweetness into a concrete capacity to say “I know." I couldn’t point to a defining moment (like while taking Moroni’s challenge, etc.) when God had witnessed to me personally that everything I’d been taught all my life was real, good and true. That was ultimately what bothered me, I think.
Unlike my questions about mission-preparedness, which were resolved almost in a single moment, the knottier and broader faith-versus-knowledge issues with which I grappled as a youth took longer to resolve. And this is where I want to return to the theme of daily scripture study. Over time, I learned from my devotional practice that the Lord, in the moving words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, was unfailingly kind “to those who fall” and “good to those who seek.” In fact, if there is one thing I can say I know, it is that God is good to those who honestly seek him. Gradually, I became more comfortable with the fact that my daily walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ was not going to involve sure knowledge, at least in this life. It would rather be, much more than anything else, a matter of faith. Ultimately, I do have a scripturally-grounded hope that this faith will be refined into a kind of knowledge. As we read in Doctrine and Covenants 50: 24, “that which is of God is light, and he that receiveth light, and contineuth in God, receiveth more light, and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”
Paul famously taught in his epistle to the Romans that “faith without works is dead.” To this end, I want to highlight in closing one simple way in which the faith I do possess changes my behavior on a day-to-day basis. Here is a rather unorthodox example to start things off. I’ve always loved the Saturday evening adult session of stake conference, and usually find it the most uplifting generally of the entire weekend. After four or five years of attending these meetings, I think I’ve determined why this is. Since it’s already the designated Christian Sabbath, it doesn’t take much to wake up and attend a two-hour stake conference meeting on Sunday (especially since it generally starts an hour or two later than sacrament meeting would have, allowing one extra time for sleep). However, Saturdays are a different story. We have homework to do, sports games to attend or watch, and yards to tend then; it’s our all-purpose catch-up day. Thus carving out the two hours on Saturday evening to attend a church meeting can be a sacrifice. It might seem like a trifling thing, but in my experience it has never been easy, especially as a full-time student, to make that choice (twice a year) to show up. But it has always been worth it. By attending, I actively demonstrate to God my trust in the local leaders he’s called to watch over me and my fellow students.
Almost exactly a year ago, on the weekend in mid-March just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced BYU to close its doors, I had stake conference. Obviously I had no idea that it was going to be the last weekend I’d attend church in-person for several months. When Saturday night rolled around, I showered, threw on my suit and walked down to the church with my roommates for the meeting. Gathered in the large chapel with a couple hundred other young adults, I felt again that unique sense of community and camaraderie, especially as we sang the opening and closing hymns. For whatever reason, I remember on that particular night that the organ sounded especially Tabernacle-Choir-like and my peers unusually in tune. Looking back, this nourishing memory (however much it was later shaped or idealized by my pandemic loneliness, etc.) was a great blessing, and sustained me, in a way, during the long months of lockdown and Zoom church.