A BYU student decides he has to know, once and for all, if the Church is true. He hikes up into a mountains, spends three days in fasting a prayer. Nothing. No answer. The Church must not be true. He had given God the ultimatum–“Tell me or else”–and God didn’t play along.
But he was just doing what the Book of Mormon told him to do–Moroni’s promise, right? Wrong. Moroni’s promise (Moroni 19:3-5) isn’t about asking if the Church is true. It’s about asking if the Book of Mormon is true, and only after reading and pondering the Book. And Moroni doesn’t promise an instant answer. The closer analogy to the BYU student’s demanding of a sign is the story of Sherem (Jacob 7:12-15).
Let’s not be too hard, though, on the BYU student hiking into the Mountain, or on the young mother going into a temple with the same expectation. Good people have tried the same thing before.
President David O. McKay told of his attempt to obtain a sign, or manifestation, from God. President McKay is quoted in a General Conference talk by Elder Robert Hales
“Somehow in my youth I got the idea that we could not get a testimony unless we had some manifestation. I read of the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I knew that he knew what he had received was of God. I heard my father’s testimony of a voice that had come to him, and somehow I received the impression that that was the source of all testimony. I realized in my youth that the most precious thing that a man could obtain in this life was a testimony of the divinity of this work. I hungered for it; I felt that if I could gain a testimony, all else would indeed seem insignificant.
“I did not neglect my prayers. I always felt that the secret prayer, whether in the room or out in the grove or on the hills, would be the place where that testimony would come. Accordingly, when I was a boy I knelt in prayer more than once by the serviceberry bush as my saddle-horse stood by the side of the road.
“I remember riding over the hills of Huntsville one afternoon, thinking of these things and concluding that there in the silence of the hills was the best place to get that testimony. I stopped my horse, threw the reins over his head, withdrew just a few steps, and knelt by the side of a tree. The air was clear and pure, the sunshine delightful; the growing verdure and flowers scented the air. …
“I knelt down and with all the fervor of my heart poured out my soul to God and asked him for a testimony of this gospel. I had in mind that there would be some manifestation; that I should receive some transformation that would leave me absolutely without doubt.
“I got up, mounted my horse, and as he started over the trail, I remember rather introspectively searching myself and involuntarily shaking my head, saying to myself, ‘No, sir, there is no change; I am just the same boy I was before I knelt down.’ The anticipated manifestation had not come.”
Even though he did not immediately receive the manifestation he expected, President McKay continued to seek a personal witness. He later related that “the spiritual manifestation for which I had prayed as a boy in my teens came as a natural sequence to the performance of duty.” Jesus, likewise, said that testimony comes by doing: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17).
Even if testimony did come by a manifestation or sign, what would that feel like? A warmth in the Chest? Probably not. Dallin Oaks, in his 1997 General Conference talk, quotes a well-known scripture, and then explains his understanding of it.
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:7–8; emphasis added).
“This may be one of the most important and misunderstood teachings in all the Doctrine and Covenants…I have met persons who told me they have never had a witness from the Holy Ghost because they have never felt their bosom ‘burn within’ them. What does a ‘burning in the bosom’ mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word ‘burning’ in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works. Truly, the still, small voice is just that, ‘still’ and ‘small.'”
The “burning” in the bosom is metaphorical. Bosom literally means “chest,” but when used figuratively it can be more or less synonymous with heart as the seat of intimate feelings or desires. The witness of the Holy Ghost comes to the “mind” and “heart,” (D&C 8:2) which, in scriptural terms, usually mean the same thing. In other words, the witness comes as an understanding in the mind. When we say, “I feel that this is right,” what we really mean is, “This seems right to me.” We are talking about a belief, not a physical sensation. Paul taught that faith is a gift of God given by “the manifestation of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3-11; also Moroni 10:8-17). A “burning in the bosom” may simply be faith or belief itself–the faith Paul referred to that would be given by the Spirit. In other words, God doesn’t give us a “warm feeling” that we use as a sign to prop up our faith. He gives us the faith directly–faith that “burns” in our mind (“heart” or “bosom”). In his talk, Elder Robert Hales clarifies that testimony is simply God-given faith, instilled in us by the Holy Ghost. “Faith is testimony; testimony is faith…Our testimony is a gift from God…granted by the Holy Ghost.”
The faith that the Holy Ghost gives us may indeed prompt emotions as well. It may cause us to feel gratitude, even to tears. Our comforting belief may even cause us to feel warm, but those feelings are secondary. So what does faith feel like? Elder Oaks described the spiritual witness (faith, or “burning”) as “comfort and serenity.” In other words, faith is peace, assurance, enlightenment, or increased understanding of something. It is seeing something more clearly, or feeling confidence in it. My greatest spiritual witness, which I received as a youth, was not a physical or emotional manifestation. It was a sudden understanding of God’s love. That understanding, given by the spirit, in turn produced an emotion. The understanding, the new-found faith in God’s love, was the “burning in the bosom.” It didn’t come because I demanded it. It didn’t come on my timetable. It came as I was reading and pondering the scriptures after many years of doing so. That witness of the Spirit was important to me, but it is not the totality of my testimony. My testimony–my faith–is that the Book of Mormon “feels” true, it seems true true to me, I believe it. That’s about all I can say. And I think that, for God, that’s enough for now, if I act on it.