A Gentle Fire


We expect a “burning in the bosom” as an answer to prayer, but it took me years to understand the feeling behind the symbol.

I grew up in the Church. Most of my teachers and leaders were diligent and effective in trying to instill within me a love for the gospel, a knowledge of its principles, and especially, a testimony—what President Joseph Fielding Smith called the “speaking of the Holy Ghost to the soul in a convincing, positive manner” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., 5 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979, 3:28). In my teen years I remember several teachers and fireside speakers outlining how a testimony could be obtained. It seemed so easy that I decided to follow it.

The most often quoted scripture was Moroni 10:4–5 [Moro. 10:4–5], which explains how to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask 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.”

Some people taught me how prayers were answered and referred to Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s experience translating the Book of Mormon. When Oliver Cowdery was having difficulty with translation, the Lord instructed him to study it out in his mind and then ask the Lord if it was right. If it was right, he would receive a burning in the bosom, while if it was wrong he would have a “stupor of thought” that would cause him to forget that which was wrong (D&C 9:7–9).

As a high school student, I determined that I would act on this advice and try to obtain my own testimony of the gospel. I wanted to know that it was true. So I carefully read the Book of Mormon, underlining as I went. When I finished I felt a great sense of anticipation about Moroni’s promise. I knelt down and prayed, trying to learn for myself whether this book was true or not. Although I prayed off and on for several weeks with what I thought was “real intent” and determination, I failed to recognize an answer. When my friends stood in fast meeting to express their testimonies, my parents were disappointed that I did not. I told them that I was trying, but that a testimony had just not come to me yet. I could not be dishonest. I worried and wondered what I was doing wrong. Perhaps my life was not good enough for the Lord to recognize my question—or maybe there was something wrong with the way I was praying—or perhaps I just didn’t know how to recognize an answer.

The prayer and study went on for two more years, during which I read the Book of Mormon a second time, and then my bishop asked me to go on a mission. On one hand, I was elated, because I had always wanted to serve a mission; but on the other hand, I was very worried, because my testimony had not been granted. How would I convince others if I could not speak with conviction? My brother was going on a mission at the same time, and my parents, who were of very modest means, pledged themselves to our financial support.

When I went for my interview with the stake president, he surprised me by suggesting that I remain at home until my older brother returned—to lessen the financial burden on my parents. Greatly disappointed, I returned home to relay this sad advice to my father, normally a quiet, soft-spoken man. My father was distressed. He expressed strongly held feelings that I should go at the same time as my brother, and that the Lord would help us to meet the financial obligation. He put on his coat and announced that he was going to talk with the stake president. “You are going on a mission—and you are going now!” he said with conviction. Before he left, he wanted us all to kneel in family prayer. My father uttered a simple prayer, expressing thanks for blessings, and asking for help in his talk with the stake president and for help for his sons as they prepared to leave for the mission field.

As I listened with faith to that prayer and tried to look into the future, I was spiritually moved beyond anything I can describe. At that instant, I received a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel. I was overcome with a feeling of happiness and excitement, as if to say that my father would be successful in his own little mission, which he was. But I also knew absolutely that I would be able to go on a mission (as I did to New Zealand) and testify with honesty and certainty to anyone who would listen to me. It was an enormously satisfying experience. My previous anxieties about being a missionary without conviction were gone. The Lord had answered my prayers—although in a way that I had not expected. As for my parents—they successfully supported their two sons as missionaries for two years and prospered financially.

I have tried to analyze why it took me so long to gain my testimony. It may have been that the Lord wanted to grant it in connection with a mission call to increase my faith in my Heavenly Father and my earthly father—or it may have been that I hadn’t recognized earlier attempts by the Lord to reach me. I hadn’t expected to see a vision like the Prophet Joseph Smith did. But I wasn’t sure how to describe a “burning in the bosom” either.

The Lord told Joseph Smith that he spoke to his servants “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). Everyone feels and describes his spiritual experiences differently. Perhaps I needed to learn how the Lord would speak to me and recognize the answers I was getting. I understand now. When I pray for an answer, I use the same formula taught to me in my youth. I study it out in my mind, make what I think is a reasoned decision, then I ask the Lord if it is right. If I feel a growing sense of excitement, I am convinced that the Lord approves of the decision. When I am fasting, the lack of food continually reminds me of the purpose. I pray frequently and feel a surging excitement and certainty as if the Holy Ghost has given an impression to my soul. If it is wrong, I become confused and depressed—finally realizing that I am experiencing a “stupor of thought.”

I am convinced that the Lord will answer our prayers, but we have to communicate with him often enough that we recognize how he answers us. We have to get to know him. Once we have received that warm assurance that comes when a prayer is answered, when we receive a spiritual witness, we will understand how communication with God occurs. President Joseph F. Smith described the impression of the Spirit on his soul as being so impressive that he felt it “from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet. God has shown it to me and removed all doubt from my mind, and I accept it as I accept the fact that the sun shines at mid-day” (Millennial Star, 4 Oct. 1906, 68:628).

Elder Loren C. Dunn, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, said, “It may not come like a flash of light (I don’t know how the Lord is going to communicate with you), more than likely it will be the reassurance and a feeling in your heart, a reaffirmation that will come in a rather calm, natural but real way from day to day until you come to a realization that you do know” (address given at University of Utah LDS Institute, 10 Nov. 1972, p. 5). And on another occasion he said: “I will tell you one thing—you will not gain a knowledge of the things of God on an instantaneous basis” (address given at Brigham Young University, 7 Mar. 1972, p. 3).

For some a testimony comes more easily than for others. For me it took hard work—study, thought, prayer, fasting—until the answer came. It was difficult for the Prophet Enos too—he prayed all day and night, struggling in the spirit until his “faith began to be unshaken in the Lord.” His answer was a voice from the Lord telling him his sins were forgiven and that his desires would be granted because of his faith (Enos 1:5, 11–12). Once it is obtained, a testimony must be nourished through continued study, prayer, and Church activity, combined with Christian living. President Harold B. Lee said that a testimony is as fragile and hard to hold as a moonbeam. “It is something you have to recapture day by day” (address given at Salt Lake City district seminaries “S” Day, 24 Feb. 1973). It is worth the effort.

[photo] Photo by Grant Heaton