By Eric Johnson
There appears to be nothing more important to a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than having a personal “testimony” confirming the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, ultimately, the LDS religion itself.
Some refer to receiving this personal testimony as a “burning in the bosom.” The term comes from Doctrine and Covenants 9:8, which reads, “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. ”
Should a seeker after truth ever pray about receiving a personal testimony? The answer is no for 4 good reasons.
- Misinterpreting James 1:5
Many Latter-day Saints point to James 1:5, a verse Joseph Smith said was instrumental to him in 1820 when he was considering which church he should join. It says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”
Unfortunately for the case of Mormonism, James 1:5 must be taken out of context to make it say something that was never intended by the biblical author. The context specifically speaks about gaining wisdom, not knowledge. Wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. To understand what a particular passage means, one should read the surrounding context. The passage in James 1 refers to those times when a Christian goes through trials and temptations. Consider:
- Verse 2: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.”
- Verses 3 and 4: Talks about patience and endurance can be the result of going through these “divers temptations”
- Verse 12: “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.”
- Verse 13: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.”
- Verse 14: “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.”
In other words, when a Christian is going through difficult times, James told his Christian audience that wisdom—not knowledge—ought to be sought through prayer.
Also, if praying about a religion/religious system is required, then shouldn’t the Latter-day Saint pray about every religious possibility to determine if these other faiths/religious books are true. For example, I have asked Latter-day Saints if they have prayed about the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Tripitaka. Most admit that they have never even seen these religious books, let alone read them. Perhaps they should get busy and read these scriptures so they might take James 1:5 to its full course. This way sincere seekers could best determine if there is any truth to Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. After all, if praying about the Book of Mormon/Mormonism will result in a person receiving a confirmation in its validity, certainly other religions and their scriptures would be shown as false!
- Praying about the Book of Mormon is not a true test
Another verse often used is Moroni 10:4, which is found at the end of the Book of Mormon. It says,
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.
I like to ask Mormon missionaries, “Did you get a positive answer when you prayed according to Moroni 10:4?” They normally say “yes.” I will point them back to the verse that “if these things are not true.” By getting a positive answer, isn’t it a problem to find out that “these things are not true”?
Here is the crux of the problem: Praying about the Book of Mormon or the LDS religion is not a true test. If the “right” answer is not received, then the onus is pinned on the seeker’s back to gain more “sincerity” or “real intent.” Such reasoning provides a psychological edge to the LDS missionaries, especially when they deal with prospective converts who, in their hearts, may desire Mormonism to be true. One missionary said that the prayer works when “you have to want it (Mormonism) to be true.” Just because someone wants something to be true does not make it so. For all intents and purposes, the “test” is nothing more than a manipulative tool used to gain new converts.
- Testing of a faith is required by the Bible
Second Timothy 2:15 says “study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” While many Latter-day Saints point to James 1:5 as their proof text, they are unable to point to other biblical references to support how a religious truth can be determined through prayer. (If I’m wrong, then please write us and show another biblical verse to show how prayer is commanded in determiing whether or not something is true.)
The Bible does not teach that truth can be discovered through prayer; it never endorses positive feelings that might come as a result. First Thessalonians 5:21 commands Christians to “test everything.” First John 4:1 commands believers to “try [test] the spirits.” Why? Because many false prophets have gone out into the world! The Bereans in Acts 17:11 didn’t resort to praying about Paul’s message and settling for a nebulous testimony; rather, they “searched the scriptures daily” and tested the apostle’s words against what God had already revealed. For this, they were called “noble.”
- Trusting in personal experiences can be deceptive
Mormon layperson Rachel Nielsen explained how it is possible to test a personal feeling such as praying for a “burning in the bosom.” She said you should “ask yourself if the thought or the feeling is inviting you to do good. If it is, you can be assured that it is from God.” (“What if I don’t feel a burning in the bosom?” New Era, June 2014, 19). Her simplistic test becomes useless since the gurus in India, the imams in Saudi Arabia, and the monks in Thailand all feel their beliefs guide them to “do good,” though they all reject the tenets of Mormonism. Even few atheists believe in doing the wrong things.
Many Mormons who rely on their testimonies have never thought through the implications of using prayer as a standard for measuring truth. Is it even possible for sinners to trust themselves to decipher God’s will based on one’s experience? And how does someone know that a “feeling” is leading her to do “good”? Let me provide an example. Suppose an unmarred couple prays sincerely about having sexual relations. What if both came up with simultaneous “good” feelings that they believed verify what they were doing was good, even moral? Most Mormons will scoff at this example. But if it is possible to pray about the Book of Mormon, why shouldn’t this test be valid for other situations like this? Instead of basing truth on a personal experience, the Christian has special revelation (the Bible) to determine a course of action. The Bible teaches that sex outside of marriage is wrong (1 Cor. 6:18, 1 Thess. 4:3-5), regardless of how much assurance (or good feelings) the couple may have “that it is from God.”
Another example involves romantic relationships between the opposite sexes. (As a former high school teacher, I think I may be an expert on this topic!) A person (lover) who feels he loves another (beloved)–even believing that these feelings are “beyond a shadow of a doubt”–can be deceived if the beloved doesn’t have the same belief and feelings. Imagine if this lover wrote down all the reasons why he feels he is in love and documented these feelings in a journal, even sharing the joyous news with friends and family who may validate this “love.” (“I knew you would find the right person to love,” Mom exclaims while giving him a big kiss.)
Still, this does not validate his feelings since a one-sided “love” is nothing more than mere infatuation! Taken to an extreme, the beloved may reject the feelings of her pursuer and may even claim that he is a stalker! For there to be love, then, there must be reciprocation of the lover’s romantic advances. It doesn’t matter what one person’s feelings are unless both agree they are in “love.” Reality, not just a feeling or confirmation felt by one person, is a necessary ingredient for romantic love!
There are a number of additional examples that could be used to show that prayer is not how we should determine truth. For example, proving gravity, crossing the street when the light is red, and investing in a financial scheme run by my neighbor promising 10% per month returns involve research, investigation, and applying the rules of logic. We can pray for wisdom as we make these decisions, as James 1:5 directs, but we should never rely on prayer alone to make these decisions. Some Mormons may claim that Christians who won’t pray about the Book of Mormon are devaluing prayer. Yet Christians do believe in prayer by which they praise God for who He is, confess their sins, thank Him for His provisions, and lay out their petitions within His will (“thy will be done”). While Christians should certainly pray for guidance when determining spiritual truth, abandoning logic and biblical discernment is not the answer.
Trusting in our feelings is dangerous. The Bible says it is too easy to deceive ourselves without a moral compass. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Proverbs 14:12 warns, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death,” while Proverbs 28:26 adds that only fools trust in their hearts.
While it may sound spiritual to pray about a religious scripture or a religion as a whole, there are dangers with praying about spiritual truth. I challenge the Latter-day Saint to do what James 1:5 says and pray for wisdom, but also to do the research and go where the evidence leads. If Mormonism is true, the facts will support that case. If it is not true, then research and the evidence will produce many holes and the religion ought to be rejected because it is not true, regardless of any positive feelings that may have been received through prayer.