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A literal knowledge
I grew up as a member of the church. I’ve been taught the gospel pretty much my entire life. I remember loving the gospel from the time I was very young. I prayed about The Book of Mormon, but I never had an experience that I can distinguish as a starting point for my testimony. The testimony I have felt during my life has been extremely subtle.
I chose to serve a mission as I grew older, and I was called to Indiana. It was there that I had my first faith crisis. It was on my mission that I remember distinctly asking myself for the first time, “What if everything I thought I knew is a lie?” It was the first time I remember wondering if all of the good feelings I’d experienced with the church were simply positive associations with good memories.
My faith crisis was a general one. I questioned both the church and the existence of God in general. At the time, we were teaching a man who had been feeling a faith crisis for years. I remember him telling the story of how he came to question God’s existence. He admitted to struggling with the idea of faith. How can one actually know The Book of Mormon is true? This man was adamant that no one can truly know until they’ve seen it with their eyes.
Though I had heard this before, this was the first time that I felt it. I reflected on this sentiment again and again. “We can’t know unless we see it.” It started to really affect me though I mentioned none of this to my companion or anyone else. I studied and taught and worked, but I could still feel the questions that were overpowering at times. I kept teaching because I hoped it was true, but I felt rather broken inside. How could I know unless I saw it? And if God wasn’t willing to show me, how could I know it? Did I simply have to live the rest of my life on hope?
It was around this time that we attended a missionary conference of some sort. I really can’t tell you any of the specifics of that meeting. I can’t remember if it was a zone conference or a special conference or what it is. There was only one thing I could remember. Our mission president asked us to spend thirty minutes of our study reading The Book of Mormon every morning.
For some of us, this felt like a rather big thing to ask. Missionaries get an hour of study every day, and reading The Book of Mormon for half of it can feel like a lot. Sometimes you have people that you’re trying to study for, and this is likewise time-consuming.
Either way, the mission president asked us to and so I did it. I started reading The Book of Mormon every day for thirty minutes.
I don’t know when things changed for me, but I do know that they did change.
After a while of following the counsel of my mission president, the doubts just kind of disappeared. There was no overwhelming feeling from the Spirit that seemed to yell, “It’s all true!” There was no moment during my work or teaching where I felt a fire and knew the Spirit was giving me an answer. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced that specifically. All I know is that the doubts left, and it was affirmed to me that I can know these things are true. There are still principles that I simply believe, and there are other principles that I know. But from reading The Book of Mormon repeatedly, I learned that somebody can come to a literal knowledge of the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Signs will not give you knowledge
Martin Harris, at this point, had played a relatively large role in the coming forth of The Book of Mormon. Despite this large role, Martin still struggled. This is not my condemnation of him. His wife, Lucy, really struggled with his involvement with Joseph Smith, and I suspect that played a role. It’s not easy to be constantly dogged with skepticism regarding what you believe.
In this week’s sections, Martin lost the 116 pages that he had begged for. Joseph received Section 3 in July of 1828 in response to the lost manuscript. After losing the pages, Martin obviously stayed involved because by March 1829, Martin had inquired whether he could be one of the special witnesses of the plates. Honestly, more power to him. It’s not about how many mistakes you make; it’s about how many times you repent and keep trying.
Either way, Martin had asked to see the plates. Here’s what the institute manual quotes about this.
“Martin Harris had already received a remarkable proof of the truth of the claims made by the Prophet Joseph regarding the Book of Mormon, when he carried a facsimile of the engravings to New York scientists. Professor Anthon had told him, as he himself states, that the ‘hieroglyphics were true characters.’ He had also, through the Prophet, received revelations. But he was not yet satisfied. He seems to have asked for further evidence that the Prophet Joseph actually had the plates from which the lost manuscript had been translated.”
So Martin was struggling with wanting to know. He wanted a sign that Joseph really had the plates.
Have you ever wanted a sign before you would believe? It’s okay to be honest with yourself in this. It’s not any different than being honest with yourself about the fact that you’ve made any other kind of mistake. I’ve wanted signs. I’ve wanted to see angels and miracles. I’ve wanted a vision like Joseph Smith before.
I feel like there are different kinds of sign-seekers. The first kind is like Korihor from The Book of Mormon. This kind of sign-seeker is willful. They refuse to believe unless they’ve seen a sign. The most ironic part of this is the fact that signs don’t help. We see that over and over and over and over. Laman and Lemuel saw an angel. Martin had gotten confirmation from an earthly scholar that Joseph had possession of some kind of hieroglyphics. There were people in the America’s who saw the sign of Christ’s birth and still refused to believe. This kind of sign-seeker is the kind that is most heartily condemned in the scriptures. The Lord is frustrated with this kind of sign-seeker because the signs they desire will only hurt them.
The second kind of sign-seeker believes but still has desires for a sign. Disclaimer. This next part is my own opinion, not doctrine. I don’t believe the Lord is as angry with this kind of sign-seeker. After all, their hearts aren’t hard; they still believe.
However, if you have found yourself in this category as I often have, then please hear me.
You can literally know the gospel is true, but this knowledge will never come from signs.
When you want a confirmation for what you believe and you simultaneously want a sign as your answer, it’s because you don’t truly understand the doctrine. I repeat what countless general authorities have said before. Nothing will touch and forever change your heart like the Holy Ghost will. No sign can give you the knowledge that the Holy Ghost can give you. If you find yourself desiring a confirmation, then pray for the right thing. Pray for knowledge from the Holy Ghost, and it will come to you.
Doctrine and Covenants 5:12-13
12 Yea, they shall know of a surety that these things are true, for from heaven will I declare it unto them.
13 I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;
The Lord is speaking of the three witnesses who get to see the plates in these verses, but look at His special wording. They shall know it’s true because I will declare it unto them. I will give them power to see things as they really are. His words did not read, “They will know it’s true because they get to see the plates for themselves.”
Even the witnesses who got to see the plates had to receive a testimony from the Lord, not their eyes.
You will not be able to prove your knowledge
In truth, my heart really goes out to Martin. I imagine him in constant arguments with his wife. She tells Martin that he’s a fool for believing Joseph. I can hear her words, “Oh…I get it…you’re giving all this money to Joseph and you’re helping him and he promises he has the plates but he won’t show them to you….yup, that makes sense babe.” I can hear her skepticism, and I feel for Martin.
I know that feeling to a smaller extent as I sat in front of my friend on my mission who struggled with his faith. I wanted to be able to give him proof and open his eyes. I felt doubt. I was scared of being played for a fool.
We have to somehow find ourselves comfortable with the idea that even when we have received knowledge from the Holy Ghost, we will never be able to give that knowledge to someone else.
Doctrine and Covenants 5:7
7 Behold, if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that you should show them all these things which I have committed unto you.
If they can’t find it within themselves to believe the Lord’s words, they won’t believe you. Even if you could show them the plates, it would change nothing.
So three principles I want to recap:
You can come to a literal knowledge of the truthfulness of the gospel. This knowledge will not come all at once.
Signs will not give you this knowledge. Ever. Though you can’t see it, the Holy Ghost is the only one that can bring you knowledge.
You will never be able to prove your knowledge to someone else, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s awesome. They have to go through the same growing process as you. They have to read The Book of Mormon and try it for themselves. Even if we could somehow “give” our knowledge of the truth to someone else, we would regret doing so because our loved ones need to grow for themselves.
I cannot prove my knowledge of The Book of Mormon, and in so many ways, I’m still working on that literal knowledge myself. I do testify that you can literally know. I also testify that the only way to truly come to know is by doing the work yourself and letting the Holy Ghost change you. I have no miraculous experience to prove my testimony. Heck, I don’t even have some big experience with the Holy Ghost as my “answer.” But I do have a testimony, and I also testify that you can receive one from the Holy Ghost.