During the course of our conversation, she asked me "How did you know that this was the true church? How can you be sure?"
How can you be sure?
That question, that deep, probing question, is one that every religious man or woman must be prepared to answer. How can we "stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places" (Mosiah 18:9) if we don't even know HOW we know that God exists?
Well, I am a firm believer that each of us needs to find that answer for ourselves. We all have a unique path to walk that leads to a sure knowledge of God. I hope, though, that by sharing how I came to MY answer, that YOU will be able to get to YOURS.
C. S. Lewis once said that "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important." In that spirit, I'd like to invite anyone and everyone that DOESN'T know yet if God is real or what they believe about Him to take the time to ponder and come to their own conclusion. I would invite them to follow the same steps that I took in coming to know God.
So without further ado, because there's been plenty of that already, I'd like to outline the steps that I took to learn for myself that God is real, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is God's true church on the earth today.
1. Gain Information:
This first step seems simple, but it is of vital importance. It is also a continuous process that lasts a lifetime. For me, this information mostly came from my parents and from church. As I grew up going to Sunday School and listened to the stories about Jesus, I was able to develop a foundation of knowledge of what the church believed. This knowledge was augmented at home as we read from the scriptures as a family and my parents taught me lessons about what was right and wrong. So, almost from my infancy, I had three vital, and connected, pools of information: 1) The basic beliefs of the church, 2) A familiarity of the scriptures, and 3) A clear understanding of what was morally right and wrong.
This step, too, seems obvious and maybe it is for most people. Like the first step, though, it is a continuous process that we always need to keep in the back of our mind. We NEED to know that there are people in the world, a LOT of people, that don't believe the things that we believe. I distinctly remember the moments in elementary school when I first found out that not all people go to my same church, not all people hold the moral standards that my parents taught me, and that not all people even believe in God. Each one was a shock to me, but were obviously necessary steps in my development. We cannot know that WE believe in God, without also knowing that OTHER people DON'T believe in God. In addition, we can't really be kind, loving, productive members of society without understanding and accepting the beliefs of those around us.
3. Test the Waters:
For me, testing the waters mostly meant deciding if the rules that I learned at church were actually good for me. It may take different forms for different people, but for me it went something like this: "I've been taught that I shouldn't say mean things about people, and I try not to. But does that actually make sense? Well, one time I DID say something mean about someone and they found out, and then I wasn't happy. And when people say mean things about ME I feel sad...yeah, that makes sense. I probably shouldn't say mean things about people." The process may seem juvenile, but hey, I went through this between the ages of 8 and 12 for dozens of principles. And it worked! Over time, I became committed to the individual commandments that we as members of the church are asked to obey. It wasn't just because that's what I'd been taught anymore, it was now because that's what I believed. That's what I knew. For myself.
4. Become Familiar with the Holy Ghost:
One of the basic ideas of our religion is that as we follow God's commandments, we are eligible to receive and feel the Holy Ghost. Different Christian religions have different ideas about the Holy Ghost, but I'm not going to go into that right now. However, you can read our beliefs here. Long story short, the more we keep the commandments of God, the more receptive we are to spiritual experiences and revelations. As I became committed to obeying God's commands, I began to have my prayers answered in more profound ways, I began to have deeper insights when I went to church, and I began to feel contentment and peace in my life. Granted, I was only 12 or 13 at this point, so what did "contentment" really mean? But to me, young as I was, it was a sign of progress.
5. Search With Real Intent:
This step is really a tipping point, and most of the people I've taught on my mission have already been at this stage in their spiritual journey when I first met them.
To "Search With Real Intent" means to do everything in your power to find answers for yourself. The Lord has mercifully given us some tips on how best to do this in the last chapter 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."
In other words, read the scriptures and pray about them. This passage talks specifically about finding out if the Book of Mormon is true, but I believe it applies for any spiritual answer we are trying to obtain. But again, I'd like to emphasize the REAL INTENT part of it. God has PROMISED us that we can know for ourselves, but we have to want it. We have to really want to know if God lives, if the Book of Mormon is true, or whatever it is that we are asking God.
6. Recognize the Answers:
This is where I've seen some people get hung up, especially lifelong members of the church who claim to not believe it anymore. Unfortunately, in our culture we often wait for big, dramatic answers to our questions to God. This is not the way God works. He teaches us "line upon line, precept upon precept". The knowledge and faith that we've been discussing comes slowly, bit by bit, over a long period of time. In fact, I would hope that it continues to grow throughout our mortal lives. I can only speak as an almost-nineteen-year-old, but I know that so far my faith has only increased from year to year as I've lived the gospel.
Oftentimes, we cannot recognize the answers God is giving us until after the fact. We look back and see the blessings that have come, the things that we've felt, and the decisions we've made. There may be many facets of "our answer", and we can't see them when they're happening. So, if on your spiritual journey you feel that you have been patient for long enough and haven't yet received your answer, you may have to take a step back and look at the previous days, weeks, months, or even years, and look for your answer in the details of your life.
For me, it came one day as I was reading the scriptures. I was reading some of the prophecies about our day that are contained in the Book of Mormon. I was probably 13 years old. I was suddenly struck by the realization that I was no longer just reading a book, I was reading scripture. I realized that I had already put my full trust in the book I held in my hands. I immediately knelt and prayed, and essentially asked God if I had received my answer. A calm, peaceful feeling of love filled my heart, and I knew that I had. I knew that God was real, that the Book of Mormon was true, and that the LDS Church was Christ's true church.
7: Repeat as Needed:
Even after that experience, there have been many times when I've been led to doubt what I believed. Circumstances, experiences, and new information have always kept me on my toes. This is part of God's plan though. I mentioned that the first few steps were continuous processes, and in a way all 6 steps are the same way. God asks that once we know for ourselves what we believe, that we keep doing the things that got us to that point. That way, when we are led to doubt our testimony, our testimony only gets stronger in the long run. It continues to become wider - to cover more principles of the gospel - and deeper - to give us more strength in times of trouble. It becomes a priceless treasure that cannot be taken away.
I would like to again invite everyone to find out for themselves what they believe. If you aren't LDS, that's okay. Find out for yourself IF you believe in God, and WHY you believe in God. If you want to know, turn to God, and He will show you the way.
If you know anyone who would benefit from hearing my experiences, I'd encourage you to share this with them. In addition, I'd ask that you share YOUR experiences with them. If you feel comfortable, please post in the comments how you learned for yourself what you believe.