How to Testify

What Is Testimony?

Sometimes I’m shocked by the power of a testimony. After all, it’s only a few more words—or so it seems. The power of those words! For instance, I remember speaking on communication to a large group of students and faculty at a college in Toronto, Canada, and near the end of my speech, I felt impressed to bear testimony of the principle of ultimate justice. Several came up afterwards, visibly shaken, expressing both the hope to believe and the fear of being so vulnerable in such a belief. They wanted further explanation. I was stunned by the reaction to one sentence of certain conviction. “Faith cometh by hearing. …” (Rom. 10:17.)

Another time, speaking to the missionaries at the Language Training Mission, I suddenly felt impressed to testify of the intrinsic worth of each person there, that there was no need to compare oneself with another, that the Lord knew and loved each one as a separate person and had special guidance and power to give in helping each one move on to the next step, etc., etc. Afterwards, several asked me to bear that exact testimony again and to give more explanation, almost as if they desperately wanted to believe it. One was almost overcome with a feeling of relief and joy.

I remember that many times after teaching the gospel to investigators in the mission field, or to members in Church meetings, or to counselees in my office, or to strangers on planes, I felt impressed to witness of the reality and power of the Savior, and on doing so, I felt like a conduit of light and love and power. Though it seemed so right and normal at the time; afterwards I was often amazed at the almost miraculous effect of one soul bearing testimony to another through the Spirit.

The testimonies of others have a similar effect on me. I remember one time determining to break a selfish pattern of living—feeling active in the Church but inactive in the gospel—by deeply covenanting with the Lord at the very time President Harold B. Lee bore his testimony of the Redeemer of the world at the funeral of a dear friend. His testimony opened up the deepest recesses of my soul, almost like time-lapse photography pictures a rose unfolding, and “without compulsory means” (straining or even willing), I could feel the power and efficacy of that covenant for many weeks.

Why is testimony bearing so powerful, so needful? At least three reasons come to mind. First, testifying is the purest form of human communication. The deepest meaning, the deepest conviction of one’s soul is being given to another through the medium of the Holy Spirit. “Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.” (D&C 50:22.) The Lord wants his children to hear and receive divine truths so they might live by them and receive more.

Second, testimony bearing helps us to feel less of a “stranger here.” Undoubtedly, we knew many eternal truths before coming here and “pure testimony” thins the veil sufficiently to remind and recover, to plant premortal spirit knowledge into our flesh, to penetrate the mortal overlay with eternal awarenesses. To a degree, we feel “home.”

President Joseph F. Smith taught: “All those salient truths which come home so forcibly to the head and heart seem but the awakening of the memories of the spirit.” He then asked: “Can we know anything here that we did not know before we came?” (Gospel Doctrine, 1939, p. 13.)

Third, people hunger for something fixed and certain in the universe: something they can deeply believe in and depend on. Perhaps this is true more now than ever before because most everything in the world is changing, including the speed of change itself. There must be something changeless that is true! When we are anchored and invulnerable down deep, we can be open and vulnerable on the surface of our lives by flowing with changes, loving unconditionally, and viewing life as a marvelously exciting adventure. Without such anchorage, we fabricate defensive measures to keep us from being vulnerable to all the fickle forces that play upon our lives. These mental-emotional defenses take many forms, including (1) categorizing and prejudging people, places, and ideas so as to be protected from the new and unexpected (prejudice); (2) expecting nothing to avoid being disappointed (hopelessness); (3) believing nothing to avoid being responsible (cynicism); (4) communicating in sarcasm and cutting humor to avoid being emotionally exposed and vulnerable (light-minded, guileful); (5) waiting on others to love us first, and even then impugning the motive of one taking such initiative (doubting, fearing).

A genuine testimony provides its own armor, making such defenses unnecessary (study D&C 27:15–18), and when borne a testimony can hold forth hope of that armor to the listener.

How should we bear testimony?

There are probably as many answers as there are people. But there are some underlying ideas that may have general value. Consider these ten guidelines.

1. Bear testimony by and through the Spirit. Timing is often critical. By cultivating the gift of the Spirit called discernment, by praying specifically for the spirit of a testimony, and by being open and receptive, we will come to know when and how to bear testimony. It is inappropriate, even destructive, to bear testimony when the Spirit isn’t present, when love is not felt, when the teaching has been vague and confusing, and when our personal lives clearly do not comport with our words.

“And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach.” (D&C 42:14.) “Ye shall not teach” is as descriptive as it is prescriptive.

Wise member-missionary friendshipping and teaching show an inspired balance between formal and informal testimony as well as between the mind (intellect), the heart (feeling), and the soul. While a testimony certainly contains emotions, it is more than emotions, and we need to guard against unsuitable and excessive emotionalism, which can be self-seeking and affected. A testimony confirms and capstones our teachings. It doesn’t substitute for them.

Neither should we overdo formal testimony by saying “I know” “I know” every few minutes. That too can gradually lose its impact.

We bear our testimony informally by the tone of belief our voice naturally has when we explain gospel principles and by the amount of respect we show to others, particularly when things get rough. (Consider John 13:34–35.)

2. Testify when you feel full of love. In fact, showing love when teaching gospel truths is a form of testimony in itself. People often cannot receive more light and truth except on conditions of being loved in various ways, including teaching and testifying, praying with and for them, encouraging and affirming them, empathizing with and understanding them, and walking with and sacrificing for them. Many parents, teachers, and member missionaries who do the first three and not the last two would be amazed at the power of all five together.

In working with students, I find that many who have experienced human abuse, hypocrisy, exploitation, and manipulation at the hands of “active” testifying fathers and various other authority persons come to distrust testimony altogether. Testifiers become “guilty by association.” One such individual protected himself from further wounding by labeling formal testimony bearing as prime evidence of weakness, as self-deceiving emotionalism and meaningless social ritual.

Righteous use of authority comes from character, not position. A testimony from an authority person who uses persuasion, kindness, gentleness, love unfeigned, etc., is many times more powerful and influential than a testimony from one who, lacking strength inside, borrows it from his position.

In my opinion, President Kimball “can be” bold and direct in his expressions and testimony primarily because his love and humility and dedication are so obvious to all.

3. Testify to people, not at them. The purpose is to bless people, not to blast them. Even in those instances in scriptural history when pure testimony was being borne against the souls of people, the ultimate motive was to call (shake) to repentance and to bless, not to condemn.

4. Occasionally, as moved by the Spirit, testify of the identity and worth of the other person and of his or her ability, with God’s help, to accept and obey the truth given, and also of the power or freedom to choose to obey. As a mission president, I wrote a letter to each new convert asking for a letter in return outlining the conversion process, including the problems and obstacles confronted. About half of the responses indicated that from the very beginning they never doubted the truth of the message. They doubted themselves. They doubted their worth or their ability to live the truth.

But when people become aware of their own eternal identity, of their godly potentialities and of their agency or power to choose their response in any set of circumstances, a vital something is unlocked and released.

This happened to Moses on the Mount. His childhood and adult experiences in the Egyptian courts may have given him a somewhat distorted view of himself and reality. The Lord corrected (refreshed?) Moses. Study Moses, chapter 1: “I am the Lord God Almighty” (Moses 1:3); “thou art my son” (Moses 1:4); “I have a work for thee, Moses, my son” (Moses 1:6); and “thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:6).

Testimony of the true identity, worth, potentiality, and agency of another serves in one sense like a patriarchal blessing or an ordinance in giving a person a divine definition of himself. Such a self-view energizes hope and courage in contrast to the fear and insecurity and self-doubting that naturally flow from a social or cultural self-definition.

5. Testify, as impressed, of how testimony comes. Testimony comes from the Holy Ghost; it comes to one who is open and seeking and who is trying to be true to the truth already given. Otherwise, many people carry the cultural notion that the way to truth is intellectual, which is part of it but certainly not the important part. People will come to know the truth to the degree they are true to the truth. To find truth, we must set out to be true. I remember many times teaching people who claimed to be doubting the Joseph Smith story that they were really having problems with smoking or tea (or whatever the Spirit impressed) and that if they would live the Word of Wisdom they would receive a hidden treasure of knowledge, including a testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. “Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” (Ether 12:6.) Many of them immediately acknowledged the real problem, then later conquered the habit and experienced a fulfillment of the promise.

6. Occasionally, identify the Spirit when you sense it and feel that others sense it also. Otherwise, many get a wrong idea of what to expect and like “fish who discover water last” will continue looking through a false-expectation lens for the more dramatic and mystical, “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14), discounting the sweetness, the mind-heart harmony, and the quiet reassuring peace of the still small voice.

“My friend, the same sweet peaceful spirit you and I both feel right now is the same spirit you will feel when you prayerfully ponder the Book of Mormon.”

7. Learn to pause when you testify, to give time for the other to think and to feel. Sometimes we need to stop our restless minds, to jump off the rushing, almost hypnotizing, treadmill of life, to pause for breath and perspective and for our bearings. I remember watching Elder Boyd K. Packer train his New England missionaries to slow down their presentations, and particularly to pause when testifying in order to give room for the Spirit to work its matchless converting miracle. “Be calm. Be believing. Look them in the eye. Then testify.”

“Be still and know that I am God.” (D&C 101:16.)

8. Use testifying words and expressions that can be understood by the hearers. So many communication obstacles are unnecessarily created by Mormon jargon—common Church vocabulary that nonmembers might not understand. (For example, “testimony,” “sacrament,” “priesthood,” “family home evening,” and “ward” are all words that could be misunderstood. There are many others.) Just as we wouldn’t hesitate to learn another language, we shouldn’t hesitate to work within the vocabularies of others to communicate our meanings. I’ve found in speaking to various non-LDS groups in different cultures that we can teach and testify of many gospel principles if we are careful in selecting words that carry our meaning but come from their experience and frame of reference. I suggest the communication problem is more often one of different word definitions than one of genuine disagreement. In parabolic teaching and plain speaking, the Lord himself is the perfect model. So are his prophets. Nephi said, “For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” (2 Ne. 31:3.) If there is any obstacle, it should be in another’s spirit, not in ours, or in our language.

9. Prepare to testify. Specifically pray for the spirit of testimony. Pray for courage to express it. Humble yourself in fasting and repentance. It’s instructive that the monthly testimony meeting is preceded by fasting and renewing our covenants. Also, bearing testimony in such a meeting is more than expressing appreciation, as beautiful and appropriate as that may be. It involves taking a stand, declaring one’s position, expressing the soul’s deepest convictions born of the Spirit regarding the divine sonship of Jesus Christ, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith and his successors, and the divinity of the Church.

The way we live is our clearest testimony, particularly under strain and threat. Over time it reflects what we really believe. If it is in harmony with what we say we believe, the Lord will use us and bear testimony through us in some way to every person we meet.

10. Testify. Testify often. Monthly. Weekly. Daily. Both formally and informally. Like a muscle, our ability to testify will grow through sincere use. “Use it or lose it.”

Relatively few of our Father in heaven’s children possess testimonies of those precious truths and powers which alone can heal individuals and families and even nations. If the leavening influence of these few is compromised because of impurity or the fear of men, how will the Lord do his vital work? “If the salt loses its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted?” (See Matt. 5:13.) “But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine anger is kindled against them. And it shall come to pass, if they are not more faithful unto me, it shall be taken away, even that which they have.” (D&C 60:2–3.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Franz Johansen

Stephen R. Covey, professor of organizational behavior and business management at Brigham Young University, is a Regional Representative. He resides in the Oak Hills Fourth Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.