President Packer has been the focus of a lot of online discussion in the wake of his recent General Conference address. Rather than enter that fray, I want to bring up an Elder Packer quote from the early 80s which, in my view, continues to be misunderstood by some well-meaning members and critics of the church:
“A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!”
I have a few peripheral reasons for bringing this talk up, including my own thoughts about the place of doubt in the LDS Church and the of-heard “I know” statements in LDS testimonies. By taking a look at the entire talk I hope to encourage reflection on what I see as a potential problem: attempts to force spiritual experiences. I also hope to clarify what the talk might mean for current and former members of the LDS Church.
“A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it” is from a talk given by Elder Packer to incoming Mission Presidents called ”The Candle of the Lord.” I remember first reading it on my mission. It was included in some recommended reading stuff our Mission President provided in a three-ring binder given to all incoming elders and sisters. I remember hearing a few elders later testifying that Pres. Packer’s encouragement helped them find a confident voice and that they felt the Spirit as they made the effort. I think that is what Pres. Packer was going for: that the Spirit would accompany the bearing of a testimony.
Later it became apparent that someone might read the talk and walk away thinking we are supposed to brainwash ourselves. One former member of the Church summed it up like this:
What BKP is saying is that one should lie about their worldview until this lie becomes “the truth” to them (and eventually to others as well).
I’ve also seen active members refer to this talk during conversations about the “I know” rhetoric of LDS testimonies. They might say a testimony which does not include the words “I know” isn’t good enough, and that such a testifier should take Pres. Packer’s advice and just say it. This week I revisited the talk (it’s been republished several times, most recently in the New Era) and discovered a few things. I created this post to bring some clarity to the talk.
First, the phrasing of the talk can easily give the impression that a member should “fake it until they make it,” which I will discuss in a moment. Second, the rest of the talk provides some important caveats that members, former and current, should keep in mind. Other council from the same talk ought to be deeply considered by anyone who thinks simply saying words like “I know” is going to do the trick. Early in the talk he says:
A testimony is not thrust upon you; a testimony grows. We become taller in testimony like we grow taller in physical stature; we hardly know it happens because it comes by growth. You cannot force spiritual things. Such words as compel, coerce, constrain, pressure, and demand do not describe our privileges with the Spirit. You can no more force the Spirit to respond than you can force a bean to sprout or an egg to hatch before its time. You can create a climate to foster growth, nourish, and protect; but you cannot force or compel: you must await the growth. Do not be impatient to gain great spiritual knowledge. Let it grow, help it grow, but do not force it or you will open the way to be misled.
So Pres. Packer seems to say the bearing of a testimony provides an environment in which the Spirit can operate (sort of like what Alma 32 talks about). He specifically cautions that it can’t be forced, but what about his advice to testify? The way he introduces the problem, I believe, leads to the confusion about “faking it.” Interestingly, the editors of the New Era help the confusion along by renaming the subsection as “Find Your Testimony by Bearing It,” instead of the original, “Where to Start”:
It is not unusual to have a missionary say, “How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?”
Oh, if I could teach you this one principle: a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!
Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. “The spirit of man is,” as the scripture says, indeed “the candle of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27).
This seems to contradict what he said earlier about not coercing spiritual things. But what he says next seems more in alignment with the earlier caution about coercion:
It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true. Can you not see that it will be supplied as you share it? As you give that which you have, there is a replacement, with increase!
It’s understandable why people have been confused over this talk. We’ve moved from a missionary who is worried that they would be dishonest in saying they know the Church is true (etc.) when they really don’t, to a person who has already received, however small, an initial witness before trying to share it.
Pres. Packer doesn’t seem to claim here that a person ought to simply say “I know the Church is true” out loud so the Spirit can then testify that it is. (If that were the case, he might propose that missionaries just hand people a card with those words printed on it and then have them read it out loud, producing instant converts.) Instead, he seems to say that a person who has received a personal witness through the Spirit need not fear to say it out loud, and that if they do, the Spirit can again witness to them in that moment.
In sum: the talk doesn’t seem to be entirely internally consistent. He says not to coerce the spirit, then says that a missionary who doesn’t have a testimony can gain one by saying they have one (perhaps he wouldn’t see this as coercion?), then seems to shift that person into someone who already had an initial witness who ought to share it in order to increase it (which fits well with his earlier coercion caution).