Receiving a Witness
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When Mormon missionaries begin to teach a person interested in hearing their message, the missionaries will encourage the person to pray. For many “investigators” of the LDS Church, prayer is a brand new venture, and at first, they may be very uncomfortable about making the attempt.
That was the case for me. I had never prayed. My father was a rocket scientist and did not believe in God. My mother claimed to be Christian, but I never saw her pray, never saw her pick up a Bible, never saw her go to any church. My first prayer was simply to find out if anyone was “up there.” Was there a God, as the missionaries claimed? And if He did, indeed, exist, was He personally interested enough in me to answer my awkward prayer? I knelt, and didn’t quite know how to begin. The missionaries had given me some coaching – begin by addressing deity in a respectful way, and use respectful language throughout. Give thanks. Then ask for answers to questions and help with challenges. Then close in the name of Christ.
I didn’t quite remember this counsel. I just knelt there wondering what to say. I was only fifteen years old at the time, and was seeking to fill a void in my very center, a painful yearning in my heart. At that age I had already reached the stage of asking, “Is this all there is?”
I don’t remember beginning correctly. I just knelt silently and let that void manifest itself, hoping this was the gateway that could open and allow it to be filled. Finally, I just ventured…”Is there anybody up there?”
I received an answer! I felt a spiritual conduit open above me, and love gushed through it. “Yes, I’m up here.” It wasn’t a voice, but an outpouring of love and spirit that I would never be able to question or deny. I learned a great deal from that brief experience. Not only was there a God, a truly personal God, but He stood ready to reach out to me at the very second I called on Him. He knew I was there on my knees, trying to get some words out that would change my life.
After a couple more missionary lessons, I did not ask the Lord in prayer whether the Book of Mormon was true, because I received that witness as I began to read it. If the Book of Mormon was true, then Joseph Smith was actually a prophet, an idea I found wholly consistent with the way the Lord worked in days of old, as recorded in the Bible. Even at that young age, I thought it was nonsense to think that if angels visited the earth anciently, they could not do it in modern times.
I was baptized soon after, and never lost my faith. Not that my life has been a straight path, but my faith has only grown. In the ensuing years, I have met people who have prayed like I did in my youth, but who claim not to have received an answer. I have puzzled over this, and I think I have found the key.
When Joseph Smith was fourteen, he attended revival tent meetings with members of his family whenever his farm duties left him time for such a thing. His family were devout Christians, but unaffiliated, and in the northeastern United States at the time, there was a “Second Great Awakening” of religious fervor taking place. Part of Joseph’s family was attracted to Presbyterianism, and others to Methodism, including Joseph. But his confusion grew. He could not make his choice by resorting to the Bible, because all the Protestant faiths relied on the Bible, but disagreed on doctrine. Joseph retired to a cluster of trees to ask God which church he should join. The Lord told him to join none of them, that He was about to restore Christ’s church upon the earth in its fulness.
The event that sent Joseph into that grove of trees to pray was reading the Book of James, Chapter 1, verse 5: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. The ensuing verses, however, talk about approaching God, doubting nothing.
I believe this is the key to receiving an answer, but I can tell you that at the time I prayed and received my own answer, I was skeptical. We can doubt God, and we can doubt ourselves, we can doubt the missionaries, and we can doubt their message. We can doubt the Book of Mormon could possibly be what Mormons claim it to be, but it’s still possible to receive an answer that can be life-changing.
I read about a person who received this sort of witness, the life-changing kind. He is my example of going to the Lord “doubting nothing.” He went to his knees at a private time and place. I don’t know if he addressed the Lord properly and gave thanks, but I know he was already a Christian and accustomed to prayer. In fact, his prior Christian affiliation was a stumbling block for him, because of his family traditions and conflicting doctrine. But he went to his knees and humbled himself, acknowledging his inability to know, his inability to rely on prior teachings or family pressure to determine the truth. Then he said, “God, I know you are there. Is what the missionaries are teaching me true? If you tell me it is true, I will give up everything to follow thee.”
And that’s the key. The willingness to follow that answer received.
Another story is of African students who were in Europe studying, sponsored by a religious organization in Africa. When they received through prayer their confirmation of the truthfulness of the restored gospel, they had to make a difficult choice. If they chose to follow the promptings of the spirit, they would have to sever ties with the sponsoring church and lose their education stipend and their European residency. Knowing the restored gospel was true, they took the leap. They lost this sponsorship, the free education, and had to return to Africa, but they made the sacrifice, because they knew. And they received their answer, because the Lord knew they would act. That’s how we show that we “doubt nothing.”
I have met people who have received the witness, started down the road, and then abandoned it. These are those called the “thorny ground” in the parable of the sower. In these, the Lord would have worked His miracles, but they are distracted by things of no worth.
Joseph Smith doubted himself, but that made him humble. He knew he had not the wisdom to discern which church was true. He had faith, but had no idea God would actually show Himself in response to his feeble attempt to pray. But he got up, and headed down a road of bitter persecution and even martyrdom, and a road to great joy.