Knowing What You Believe, Believing What You Know

By Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander

Of the Presidency of the Seventy

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From a devotional address given at Brigham Young University on 19 May 1998.We need to ponder our spiritual experiences, learn from them, and be strengthened by them.

Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander

As we read in Alma 30, Korihor had made many untrue allegations about the Church and was brought before Alma, who listened but was not challenged by Korihor’s claims. Alma recognized the allegations to be false—not only because he knew the doctrines of the Church and the history of his people but because he had unshakable confidence in his own personal experiences with the gospel.

It is a good thing for us to know what we believe. We should know and be familiar with the doctrines, ordinances, covenants, and teachings of the Church and its modern-day prophets. Equally important, however, to knowing what we believe is believing what we know. Believing what we know has to do with recognizing, trusting, and learning from our own spiritual experiences.

Deeply personal spiritual experiences are granted to us for our own edification and occupy an important place in our education. Such experiences will always be in harmony with the doctrines of the Church and the teachings of its living prophets.

I am passing through the same educational process you are. Along the way I have made a few observations about learning from the experiences the Lord has granted me. I would like to share a few of my observations with you.

1. We can know some things without knowing all things.

When Nephi desired a confirmation of his father’s vision, the angel asked him, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi’s answer was, “I know that he loveth His children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Ne. 11:16–17). Nephi seemed satisfied to permit his knowledge of some things to expand his faith and give him confidence in areas where his knowledge was not quite as complete. We would do well to nurture this understanding. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) taught that “faith is based on past experience. It is not blind obedience, even without total understanding, to follow a Father who has proved himself” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 59). For example, each time the Lord answers a prayer, my knowledge that He does answer prayer is strengthened. This knowledge expands my faith and confidence into those times when His answers do not come as quickly or when His timing is far different from my own.

In an academic setting we understand this principle of not knowing all things quite thoroughly. We are comfortable with the idea that we must take basic courses before we move on to more advanced work. The absence of complete knowledge in a discipline does not hinder us in knowing some things about that discipline. In fact, our pursuit of additional knowledge is driven by our understanding that we do not know all things.

Learning takes time. Though we understand this in our secular lives, we are often impatient in our spiritual development. We sometimes feel that the Lord ought to reveal more than He does in order to remove some of the discomfort we experience when we realize that we do not have a ready answer for every question. In Primary, however, we memorize the ninth article of faith, which teaches us that more is yet to come: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”

Alma teaches that spiritual growth takes effort as well as time: “If ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.

“And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, … by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, … and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst” (Alma 32:41–42).

The people of Alma’s day did not immediately understand how to plant and nourish the word in their hearts. Alma answered by giving them three basic steps: pray in all circumstances, read and understand the scriptures, and believe in the Son of God (see Alma 33). In this progressive revelation of spiritual knowledge by virtue of our diligence, faith, and long-suffering, we can surely know some things without knowing all things.

2. Spiritual experiences are very personal and may not be understood by others.

The Lord cautions us to exercise great care in how, where, and with whom we share our spiritual experiences. We cannot expect a basically unbelieving world to understand experiences of a deeply personal and spiritual nature.

A most interesting example of this is found in the ninth chapter of John: “And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth” (John 9:1). Jesus spat on the ground, made clay of the spittle, anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, and then told him to go wash. “He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing” (John 9:7). What was the reaction among the people to this miracle? Did they accept it as a confirmation of their faith? First his neighbors didn’t even recognize him. “And they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged?” (John 9:8). “Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am he” (John 9:9). They asked him, “How were thine eyes opened?” (John 9:10). He answered their question very simply, surely anticipating that they would accept his response and take joy in his good fortune. “A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight” (John 9:11).

His was a simple explanation and testimony of a deeply personal spiritual experience. The neighbors, however, could or would not understand, so they brought him to the Pharisees, who also asked him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see” (John 9:15). The reaction of the Pharisees is also insightful. As the miracle was performed on the Sabbath, some said, “This man,” speaking of Jesus, “is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them” (John 9:16).

Didn’t the Pharisees completely miss the point? They pressed the blind man again, not to gain understanding of the miracle but to determine his opinion of him who had performed the miracle. “What sayest thou of him, that he hath opened thy eyes?” Again, a simple answer: “He is a prophet” (John 9:17).

“But the Jews did not believe concerning him, that he had been blind, and received his sight, until they called the parents of him that had received his sight.

“And they asked them, saying, Is this your son, who ye say was born blind? how then doth he now see?

“His parents answered them and said, We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind:

“But by what means he now seeth, we know not” (John 9:18–21).

Even his parents failed to appreciate the miracle in their son’s life. Because they feared the Jews, the parents simply said, “He is of age; ask him” (John 9:23). Again they called the man who was blind and again pressed him about Jesus, saying, “Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner” (John 9:24).

I suppose by now, after several explanations, the man was growing increasingly impatient, which is felt in the terseness of his reply. “Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). No amount of explanation, however simple and straightforward, would help others to understand and accept what he himself had experienced. After all the explanation and testimony, they reviled the recipient of the miracle and said, “Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses’ disciples” (John 9:28). The man answered them again, “Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes” (John 9:30). They answered him and said: “Thou was altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out” (John 9:34). In the end, no one accepted the miracle, the doer of the miracle, or the recipient of the miracle. No one even seemed happy that the blind man could see.

The spiritual experiences the Lord grants to us are extremely personal. We should share them only selectively or not at all. If we do choose to share them, it should be only with those who can understand and appreciate such things and will hold them as sacredly as we do, as a confirmation of their own faith.

This leads me to a third observation regarding spiritual experiences.

3. Spiritual experiences not understood by others will often be rejected, but their rejection does not change the experiences.

Joseph Smith writes in his history that he shared his experience of the First Vision among the professors of religion, which caused great persecution towards him. In his reflection, the Prophet compared himself to the Apostle Paul in his defense before King Agrippa. The Prophet writes that Paul “related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But this did not destroy the reality of his vision” (JS—H 1:24; emphasis added).

The Prophet continues: “So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it” (JS—H 1:25).

If others do not enjoy spiritual experiences, it does not mean that we do not. I am reminded of an experience in New York as a graduate student. I was serving as a seventies stake missionary. The bishop called one evening and told me that some members were involved in a discussion with a group of what we would now call born-again Christians. The members were challenged by the conversation and had called him for help. He asked me if I would be available to enter the discussion, which I did. Through that evening, it became clear that my new friends rejected the idea that Joseph Smith could have had a vision. My response was a question. “What is the highest and most sacred personal experience you could have?” Their answer was: “A revelation of Jesus.” I answered, “Why then would you deny another that same blessing?”

This leads to a closely related fourth observation regarding our spiritual experiences.

4. As others may reject our spiritual experiences, they will often try to dissuade us from believing them.

There will always be those who are not content to simply reject your spiritual experiences but will do all they can to convince you to deny what you yourself have experienced. One of the most interesting examples I could find in the scriptures relating to this principle is the reaction of the Nephites toward the signs given at the birth of the Savior. Samuel the Lamanite had come among them only a few years before the signs were to be given. He made clear predictions of the signs they would witness. These would not be simple things. The sun was to go down, but there would be no darkness through the whole night. “A new star” would appear, and there would be “many signs and wonders in heaven” (see Hel. 14:3–6). Such would be their amazement that they would all fall to the earth (see Hel. 14:7).

It seems to me that such occurrences would be hard to miss. Yet when all happened according to the prophecy, many people found them hard to believe. “And it came to pass,” we read, “that from this time forth there began to be lyings sent forth among the people, by Satan, to harden their hearts, to the intent that they might not believe in those signs and wonders which they had seen” (3 Ne. 1:22).

Surely we have undergone spiritual experiences in our lives that have amazed us. We ponder them and wonder about them. Satan will always be there to whisper in our ears that they either did not happen as we remember them, or he will try to persuade us to deny them altogether.

Referring to pondering and reflection leads me to a fifth observation.

5. Sometimes only upon reflection, or when someone else points it out, do we recognize what we have experienced.

The experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection exemplifies this. He appeared to them and questioned their sadness as He spoke with them along the road. They rehearsed the events of the last few days. The Savior took the opportunity to teach them from the scriptures concerning the prophets and Himself. When they came into the village, they invited Him to stay with them. He ate with them, took bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them, and at that point their eyes were opened and they knew Him, but He vanished out of their sight. Only upon reflection did the disciples understand what had occurred. “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).

This is a common experience for all of us. It seems to me that we often do not immediately recognize the importance of what is happening to us.

Many of us have served full-time missions. Every successful missionary teaches the investigator to recognize the Spirit. At the height of a wonderful gospel discussion, a missionary will ask the question, “What do you feel right now?” It is a difficult feeling for the investigator to describe. Usually, phrases like “I feel warmth” or “I feel peace and comfort” are heard. What they feel is something they have never experienced in quite the same way. It is then that the missionary explains what is happening and what it means. So it is often with us. Only with good teachers may we sometimes begin to understand that which is occurring in our lives. Knowing this, the Lord has told us continually to ponder His word in order that we may understand.

6. Trusting our spiritual experiences will help keep us from deception.

A most revealing experience regarding this principle is that which occurred to Moses (see Moses 1:1–13). “Moses was caught up into an exceedingly high mountain” (Moses 1:1), where he saw God face to face and talked with Him. The glory of God was upon Moses so that he could endure His presence. God showed Moses some of the workings of this earth. When this marvelous vision was complete, God withdrew from Moses, and Moses was left to himself. Satan now came, tempting and commanding Moses to worship him. Moses queried him, asking: “Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?” (Moses 1:13). Moses, because of his previous experience with God, understood the deception that was being offered to him. “For behold, I could not look upon God, except his glory should come upon me, and I were transfigured before him. But I can look upon thee in the natural man. Is it not so, surely?” (Moses 1:14). Moses then commanded Satan to depart. Moses’ knowledge and trust in his first experience most assuredly kept him from the deception of his second experience.

On 2 August 1913, the First Presidency published a statement, which bears the title “A Warning Voice.” Their statement embodies a basic principle that, if followed, will keep us from deception: “In secular as well as spiritual affairs, Saints may receive Divine guidance and revelation affecting themselves, but this does not convey authority to direct others, and is not to be accepted when contrary to Church covenants, doctrine or discipline, or to known facts, demonstrated truths, or good common sense” (in James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [1965–75], 4:285–86). Those who fall away from the Church generally struggle with this principle. Recognizing and understanding our own spiritual experiences within the gospel framework keep us safe from deception.

7. Spiritual experiences confirm our testimonies and help us to endure moments of doubt and uncertainty.

President Kimball has said that “faith grows through spiritual experience” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 76). When I was a mission president, I would ask missionaries leaving the mission field to write down for their final interview with me the major lessons they had learned through the course of their mission. What I heard most often was: “I learned the importance of prayer,” “I learned that God answers prayer,” “I learned the importance of regular scripture study,” or “I learned to appreciate hard, disciplined work.” Never did I hear anything that related to the goals of the mission, the number of baptisms, or number of hours worked. After reviewing what they had learned, I returned their written accounts to them with the counsel that they keep them in a safe place. I told them that a time would come in their lives when matters would not be so clear as they had been in the mission field. It was then that they were to retrieve and read what they had written about their own spiritual experiences.

You may know that before one is considered for employment at BYU, an interview with a General Authority is required. Not long ago I interviewed a brilliant individual for a position. His training was in a discipline that could possibly pose some challenge to his testimony. I asked him whether he had ever wavered in his faith or, in the course of his study, ever lost his testimony. He answered the question candidly and told me, yes, he had. His integrity was impressive. I asked him how he had overcome the challenge. The answer was simple. He said, “I went back to my missionary journals and read them in order to rediscover what I once knew to be true.”

Spiritual experiences are granted to us by a loving Heavenly Father. They are meant to strengthen us and educate us in His ways. We need to ponder our lives that we may comprehend our spiritual experiences, learn from them, and be strengthened by them.

Photography by Steve Bunderson, Craig Dimond, Quentin Gardner, and John Luke; electronic composition by Paul Killpack

Photo by Matt Reier

The First Vision, by John Scott

Moses Overcomes Satan, by Joseph Brickey