A friend of mine, Dr. Fred Leivo, recently asked on my “Ask; Seek; and Knock” Facebook group – “What do you know and how do you know it? What do you believe and why do you believe it?”
These are some of the most important questions of life. Sometimes the distinction between knowing and believing is distinct and relevant, but more often than not, the difference is just not that important. We generally make decisions and act on the things we know and believe as if knowing and believing were the same thing.
What is of critical importance about knowing and believing, however, is WHAT we decide we know or choose to believe, HOW we decide that we know or should believe it, and WHY we make those decisions.
In fact, those are matters of life and death as well as matters of eternal life and salvation.
A poignant example:
My brother, who lived in Claremont, California and died in Burley, Idaho, was a pilot. One fateful day in August of 2010, he believed he could use the short runway for takeoff, even though the plane was near capacity, since his wife and their two teenage children were also aboard. On a normal day, he would have been right, as he had taken off from that runway many times before. But on this day, the humidity was higher than usual, and the wind was at his tail – so tragically, he and his entire family died in that tragic crash just past the end of the runway.
I like to think that example has meaning for our eternal lives as well as our mortal lives. It’s important that we understand how to know something, and that we use that knowledge to choose our beliefs with all due care and diligence. We can sometimes pay a heavy price when what we think we know and what we believe turns out to be wrong.
Now let me use my own story to answer Fred’s questions.
I’m as genetically LDS (Mormon) as anyone I know of. Every one of my ancestral lines trace back to pioneers and early saints who joined the church between 1831 and 1886. So you’d think that I would just accept everything taught by the church and just say I believe it because it’s such a key part of my heritage and who I am, and then never question it or dispute it. But that’s not me – I’m just not inclined to take other people’s word for anything.
Growing up in the church, yes, I was exposed to stories of golden plates and angelic visitations and visions and miracles at an early age – both at church and in family conversations – which indeed made it more likely that I would not dismiss such things out of hand, but I’m still not the kind of person to accept anything, even the assertions of loved ones, and especially not anything that doesn’t initially fit my everyday experience. I have a bit of a skeptic’s view of things, mandating that I ask questions trying to understand, seek verification, and reason it out for myself.
Over the years I had heard the same things in our monthly Fast and Testimony Meetings: “I know (emphasis on KNOW) that Jesus died for my sins,” or “I know that The Book of Mormon is true,” or “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet.” I only remember bearing my testimony once as a child, and that was the day I was given the Gift of the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands. I remember a feeling of euphoria I had never felt before when I heard the words “Receive the Holy Ghost” that felt like a rush of divine fire throughout my body, from head to toe – and felt I had to stand up and show my thanks to God, but I don’t remember any more than that. I often wondered how many of those who said “I KNOW…” really KNEW, because even then, I knew the difference between knowing something and believing something.
At age 14, just before the start of 9th grade, I moved from Orem, Utah, to live with my Dad in Granada Hills, California. That September, I dutifully started getting up at 6am to attend early morning seminary, where we studied the New Testament. As I learned about the life of Jesus and His miracles, I began to question my beliefs for the first time. I wanted to answer for myself the very question that Dr. Fred asked on Facebook – “What do I know and how do I know it? What should I believe and why?”
I can remember my thought processes clearly even today, because it was so important to me and of an all-consuming interests. It was a deeply held passion to know what was true and what was not – largely because I was asking myself, “Should I live by the strict requirements of my parent’s LDS faith and my upbringing, or make friends with the partying crowd instead?” I honestly wanted to know for myself so I didn’t waste my life living by someone else’s made-up rules, if that’s all they were.
I had run across Descartes, Aristotle, and other philosophers in some of my reading, so I decided to start with “I think, therefore I exist” in attempting to examine what I know and why I know it, and what I would have to chalk up to faith or mere belief. At the time, I did not really understand the difference between faith and belief, considering there to be only minor differences between the two, with both being inferior to actually knowing something.
So as I began that audit of my belief system, I quickly came to the realization that “I think, therefore I exist” may very well be the end of perfect certainty for me, or for anyone for that matter, based solely on reason, observation, and our senses. I pondered at length the implications of a simple question” “what if I’m just making everything up in my mind?” without knowing that such a belief system is called solipsism. I turned over the possibilities in my mind for months – which in the end, simply left me more confused than I’d ever been before.
I had come to a few conclusions on my own, though, over my “year of critical unbelief.” I had concluded that it was ridiculous to think that my mind was indeed “making everything up,” or that my own awareness of them was the source of all things, because only the interaction of other similar beings or intelligences could create the enormous variety of people and life and things I had encountered in my life.
Thus, I now say that I “know” that I exist AND that there is an objective reality independent of my own mind.
I had also concluded that our senses, while unreliable, lead all of these independent minds/awarenesses/intelligences (I’ll call them intelligences, ) – even animals – to accept certain “facts” and evidences that no one ever disputes and act as if those things were true, without ever facing any evidence to the contrary. Such things as the passage of time, the reality of objects we encounter daily, the need to eat, breathe, and sleep, the value of language, and so on –all fit into this category of knowledge.
Thus, I say that I “know” a lot about the characteristics of things, because my perception of things matches perfectly the way others perceive them as well, judging from how they act. There is simply no cause to ever dispute them.
And through all of this – and I know this will sound a bit strange to non-believers – it really never occurred to me to question whether Jesus Christ was my Savior or not. I automatically included that in my mind as something I simply knew, based on the reality that I understood – historical, experiential, testimonial, and scriptural.
But everything else, especially my LDS beliefs, I held in “suspended belief” – because I had no cause to disbelieve them, but no compelling reason I could see to believe them either.
After those many months of intellectual struggle, however, I was even more dismayed about whether I could ever “KNOW” anything well enough to devote my life to it rather than merely doing whatever I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I began to despair, and because I was a normal teenager who found himself trying to find his place in a new home with a new group of friends in a new school, I was feeling pretty depressed about almost everything.
By then, I had started the 2nd year of seminary, studying The Book of Mormon. The teacher had introduced us to a scripture I had heard before, but never paid serious attention to, and asked us to learn for ourselves whether The Book of Mormon was true and of God. The scripture was this:
“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.” – Moroni 10:4-5
This time when I read it, it made me stop and think. I paid more attention to that word “know” than I ever had before. If what I was reading was true – that I could know the truth of all things by the power of the Holy Ghost – then I recognized this promise could very well be the key of all knowledge, understanding, faith, and inspiration.
Perhaps more importantly, I recognized that if The Book of Mormon really were true, then that was like the first domino in a string of dominoes. If The Book of Mormon were true, then Joseph Smith had to be a true prophet to bring it forth. If Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then his visions and the visitations of angels he experienced were true. If his visions are true, then Christ had restored His true gospel in these latter days, and the Church He had established while He walked the earth had been re-established in 1830 through Joseph Smith.
I began to hope that the promise in The Book of Mormon was indeed of God.
But I also began to question yet again. I wondered if my quest could really end so simply. But most of all, I wondered if Satan wasn’t the author of the promise – deceiving if it were possible even the very elect, as I knew from the previous year in seminary that the Savior had prophesied in Matthew 24:24. If that were the case, then Joseph Smith was a false prophet, and all my ancestors had been deceived. If so, I knew I didn’t want that for myself.
So even though I hoped it was true, I didn’t know if mere feelings (assuming that would be how God would manifest the truth of it to me) would be enough to prove it to be true.
But I decided I had to at least read The Book of Mormon and ponder it and pray about it. So that night, I read the introductory material and the first several chapters. I remember sitting cross-legged on my bed as I read, thinking to myself, asking myself a wide variety of questions I had never asked before about Joseph Smith and the origins of The Book of Mormon.
I was questioning and doubting everything I could think of, trying to find an alternative explanation to Joseph’s story – one that would fit everything I already knew about it from so many years of Primary and Sunday School. And I started to think along these lines: “if God lives, but did not appear to Joseph Smith in a vision, then it must have been the devil behind it all.” And not long after I started to entertain those ideas, I heard a voice coming from within the room. I couldn’t understand what it was saying, but it was clear and stern. Startled, I looked up and could see the voice was coming from one of the two disconnected speakers on the floor. I had been working on fixing my stereo system, and had disconnected both speakers and left them on the floor. At that moment, as I realized that it was supernatural for disconnected speakers to be talking to me, I felt paralyzed by fear. I began to understand the voice, which was telling me that I had to beware and that I was one of the very elect and that I was about to be deceived and that I should burn The Book of Mormon and never touch one again, because it would lead me far astray from the knowledge I sought. Then the other speaker repeated the same thing. During this time, I tried to scream, but couldn’t make a sound. I tried to move, but couldn’t. After the voices ended, in my bathroom, the toilet flushed. I tried to pray, but couldn’t even think straight. I’ve never again felt as terrified as I felt that night.
When I could move again, I literally fell over to fall off the bed onto my knees, and prayed like I had never prayed before – but it was a clumsy prayer in that all I could think of praying for was relief and escape from the fear. I fell asleep praying and awoke the next morning still on my knees with my torso and arms sprawled on the bed.
The next day, I could barely think of anything except what had happened to me. Had that been the promised manifestation? I was now not only totally confused, but also keenly aware that I could no longer enjoy the luxury of imagining there to be no God. If that had been God speaking to me from the speakers, then my fear was evidence of my unworthiness. If that had been an evil spirit speaking to me from the speakers, then my fear was justified.
But I didn’t know what to believe, even though it seemed to me more likely for that experience to have been of evil, similar to what Joseph Smith had experienced before His vision. I was afraid to tell anyone about my experience – and, in fact, have only told a handful of people about that experience since it happened.
After that, I was reading The Book of Mormon in earnest, almost daily; pondering how sincere my heart was, and whether I had real intent or faith in Christ, and wondering where it all would lead and whether I had already received the promised manifestation, and if so, what to make of it. All I remember about my reading is that it was difficult to understand and much of it seemed irrelevant to me. But I persevered, because the stakes had suddenly become even more incredibly high.
I don’t know how long it took me to get to Alma 32, but I remember the experience of reading that chapter with total clarity. In it, Alma, circa 74 B.C. in the Americas, is preaching the word of God to the people, in their synagogues and homes. He begins to have success among the poor – those who had been cast out because “of the coarseness of their apparel,” “being esteemed by their brethren as dross.” Alma notes, however, that they “were poor in heart.” So when some of these poor begin to ask Alma plaintive questions about they should do since they have been cast out of the very synagogues that they have labored to build, Alma literally turns his attention from the rich and proud and begins to preach to the poor and humble.
And gradually as I read, it seemed more and more as if Alma was talking directly to me. He talked about how blessed are those who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble, and about faith. As Alma says, “there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.” Alma continues to discuss faith, belief, and knowledge. “Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.”
Alma suddenly seemed to be talking about my passion to know, and my struggle to know, and my reluctance to believe – and had my full attention as I carefully read on.
“And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”
My mind raced as I read this verse again and again. I remembered that I had indeed hoped that Moroni’s promise would be true so I could learn and know the truth of all things. But it seemed as if Alma was saying that it wouldn’t be faith if I knew them, and that it wouldn’t be faith even if I hoped for them if they weren’t true. So that didn’t seem to answer any of my questions about what to believe and why – so I read on.
“And now, behold, I say unto you, and I would that ye should remember, that God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word…”
“Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.”
“But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.”
Now I had done enough science experiments to be able to relate to Alma’s talk about an experiment. I read on, enthralled by what I was reading.
“Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”
That struck me as self-evidently obvious, but it wasn’t until I read the following that I had the answer to my prayers:
And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own alikeness.
Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.
And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good…”
As I read those words of that last verse, I felt not only an incredible epiphany and sense of euphoria, but the same feeling I had felt at age 8 when confirmed – but more powerful this time. Time stopped, as my entire body tingled with a spiritual energy – a fire – that felt as if my blood had become fire as it coursed through my body. There was a tingling energy that accompanied the fire, and my mind experienced a heightened awareness and certainty that is literally indescribable and cannot be communicated to someone who has not felt it, but need not be communicated to someone who has felt it.
I suddenly KNEW – with that indescribably joyful certainty that includes, but is stronger than, fact and reason combined – not only that The Book of Mormon was true, but that God lived, my family and friends were not figments of my imagination but were children of God, and most importantly, that Jesus Christ was my Savior. All at the same time, with no doubt or fear – just a thrill of joy.
I realized with joy, in and through that inspired state of heightened enlightenment where everything is crystal clear in an infinite instant, that throughout my life The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of Jesus Christ had brought me nothing but peace, joy, light, and goodness – and that equated with TRUTH. Everyone I knew in the church were better people when they were living according to the principles taught by The Book of Mormon and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I instantly recognized the many ways that I had been blessed by the love and goodness and inspired teachings of my family, neighbors, church members, teachers, Boy Scout leaders, and church leaders and General Authorities – the apostles and prophets – and I suddenly KNEW, in a way that I could never again doubt or deny – that I was feeling the Spirit of God – the Holy Ghost – and that THIS was the way, and the ONLY way, to “know the TRUTH of all things.”
What’s more, I knew that my previous experience had been an encounter with evil. The contrast between the terror of that night and the peace and joy of this night could not have been more stark, and all doubt about what is true and good and what is not was eliminated for me in that infinite moment of sublime enlightenment.
My prayers had been answered. I don’t know how long I was caught up in the euphoria of that moment of supreme ecstasy and sublime knowing – but I do know that the experience changed me forever. I have felt that Spirit many times in my life now, and hunger for it and seek after it with all my heart.
My late good friend, Britt Hagen, joined the church in his 40s, only a year or so before his death in 1997, after a miraculous conversion experience somewhat similar to mine. He once told me that in his life prior to his conversion, he had tried almost every drug he could find – and that none could begin to compare with his experience with the Spirit of God. He had felt the same things I had, and knew the same things I knew.
In fact, I’ve known hundreds and even thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people who have had the same experience with the Spirit – and all of them will tell you that it changes their lives. Many experience it before their baptism and are then baptized and become faithful converts. Some like me experience it after their baptism and are then willing to wear out our lives seeking to follow its promptings wherever it leads, trying to become – in Britt’s words – a good man, one day at a time (knowing that none of us are or can be good in this life) while sharing its joy with others.
Now, instead of looking strictly to fact, reason, science and consensus as being the best ways to know truth, I look to the Spirit of God as being the best way to know truth. It has never been wrong or led me astray, even though it is more often than not silent and absent, perhaps because, as Jesus said: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
So here, then, are my answers to Dr. Fred’s questions:
“What do I know?”
I know God lives, and loves us, and wants us to love one another.
I know that God sheds forth His Holy Spirit upon those of us, His children, who hunger and thirst after righteousness.
I know Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and my Savior and the Savior of all mankind.
I know The Bible and The Book of Mormon contain the word of God.
I know God also speaks to His children through prophets, both ancient and modern, and also through the Spirit of God – a spark of which is given to everyone born on earth.
I know the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true – that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all mankind are saved from death and will be resurrected, and all can be saved from their sins, through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
I know my son Michael, my daughter Ashley, my sister Sherry, my brother Randy, and my grandparents and other ancestors are all in the spirit world, teaching and learning, and that I will enjoy a glorious reunion with them. I know relationships are eternal because “love never ends.”
And I know many other things too numerous to mention, or too mundane to come to mind right now.
“How do I know it?”
Through the process I described above – not only through study and fact and reason, but by the Spirit of God – which is the most powerful form of knowing I can imagine.
Now, in saying that, I need to address my skeptical friends who are atheists and agnostics – because I know they’re likely to be thinking, “How can you say that? The scientific method is the best (and perhaps only) way to know anything.”
My response is that even though I’m not a scientist, I believe I understand and actually believe in the scientific method. As I understand it, it’s a means of discovery of truth consisting of systematic observation, careful measurement, repeated testing and experimentation, and the constant re-examination and modification, as necessary, of hypotheses and beliefs.
I have used the essentials of the scientific method religiously (irony fully intended) to sort out what is true from what is false and misleading. Even after my spiritual experiences described above, I’ve been careful to keep re-examining my assumptions, knowing that my spiritual awakening was not the end of the road. It was a second birth, and just like a baby, I felt the need to learn more – much more.
Every experience I’ve had – even those where I took a detour off the paths of righteousness – have strengthened both my knowledge AND my faith. I’ve put God and His messengers and the truth He has revealed to the test, time and time again. I may fail them – but they’ve never failed me.
When I live according to the Spirit and the guidance I get from the word of God, I enjoy peace in times of trial and joy in times of abundance. I am a better man for it.
When forget God for awhile, whether it’s hours or days or even weeks, and live by my own light or let my innate pride and self-righteousness rule my will (which happens often to me, as anyone who follows me in my Facebook group postings can attest), I can be mean, short-tempered, and irritable and then pay the price by reaping what I’ve sown.
And as I learned from Alma 32, whatsoever is true is good and light and discernible and enlightens the soul. I don’t doubt that – and it guides my every decision about what is right and what is wrong.
Have I seen God? No. But I have seen the workings of God in the lives of His children, both through outright miracles and the less dramatic tender mercies, so many times that I would be a craven fool to deny it, just as someone would be who denies the results of an experiment he’s seen repeated a thousand times – with the exact same results repeated every time.
And that ignores the accumulation of historical fact, philosophical perspectives, observations of human nature, natural and supernatural phenomenon, and even the inspiring art and beauty we all encounter in our lives – all of which combine to reinforce as strongly as anything else I know – my knowledge that God lives; God is good; God is love; and everything else I know about God and His Son, Jesus Christ, and about His Gospel and Church.
Knowledge may be power, but more importantly it is a means to the end of a perfect and fulfilling joy, throughout this life and the eternities to come.
“What do you believe?”
I believe many things that the Spirit may have been silent about to me, or at least may not have witnessed to me with the power described above, but rather through a “still small voice” that is not as easy to recognize and is more easily confused with my own desires or imagination. I also believe those things that I have learned through fact or reason or science or education or other fallible human methodologies. In other words, much of what others categorize as knowledge, I categorize as belief. Much of what others categorize as belief of faith, I categorize as knowledge. That’s how powerful the witness of the Spirit is. It fundamentally changes our perception of what we KNOW and what we believe.
For example, I believe that all new art and all science is inspired. By that I mean that I believe that every great artist, every scientific advance, comes because a child of God follows his or her innate (God-given) passion or gifts and through faith (belief in that which cannot be seen – including that the universe is an orderly but beautiful place) receives divine inspiration that assists (but does not dictate) their thinking and actions.
I believe that God reveals Himself through the faith of His children on earth.
I believe that the Constitution of the United States of America was created by inspired men raised up to make possible the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I believe that we seeing many prophecies of the latter-days fulfilled, in our day.
I believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is led by good men – prophets, seers, and revelators – apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that I should revere their teachings every six months in the church’s General Conference as I would scripture.
I believe that, in the words of modern prophets and apostles, “the family is ordained of God, and that marriage between a man and a woman is essential to God’s eternal plan, and that Children are entitled to birth within the bounds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother.”
I believe that “the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”
I believe that abortion is generally evil, as are laws that would deprive any couple of the right to make a prayerful decision about terminating a pregnancy that might cause an undue threat to the mental or physical health for the mother.
And there are many other things I believe, but don’t know with perfect certainty.
“Why do I believe it?”
Because those things “feel” right to me and are consistent with what I KNOW, AND seem to be true based upon my studies, experience, ponderings, and exchanges with others, and/or are taught by those I trust as being wise and inspired.