Selected Teachings on
The Testimony Triangle:
Reason, Feeling, and Experience


Bruce C. Hafen (Quorum of the Seventy)

The three elements that form and support a complete testimony are reason, feeling, and experience. I draw ... on the metaphor of a triangle to show how these elements interconnect, because each side of a triangle strengthens the other two sides:

"If there is a single most important shape in engineering, it is the triangle. Unlike a rectangle, a triangle cannot be deformed without changing the length of one of its sides or breaking one of its joints. In fact, one of the simplest ways to strengthen a rectangle is to add supports that form triangles at the rectangle's corners or across its diagonal length. A single support between two diagonal corners greatly strengthens a rectangle by turning it into two triangles" (teachersdomain.org, Resource: Triangles and Arches in Architecture).

This image is especially fitting to suggest how the three parts of a testimony reinforce each other. Put together with its three strong corners in place, the triangle of testimony is anchored and sure.

I am struck by the similarity between the process of developing a testimony and the process of falling in love. Love and testimony are two of the most important human experiences, yet often we are unsure how to be certain that either has come fully into our lives. It helps me to realize that each process builds on the same component parts—the three sides of the reason-feeling-experience triangle.

In finding the love we seek during our courtship years, we often have in mind the personal qualities we are looking for. But even when we meet someone who has everything on our list of qualities (let's call that the test of reason), there may be some "spark missing—that mysterious something that lets us feel love, not just think it (let's call that the test of feeling).

Yet rational satisfaction and good feelings are still not enough. To know if we're really in love, we need a little testing time (call it the test of experience). We can't tell the difference between one thin strand from a cobweb and one thin strand from a powerful cable just by looking at them. We need to see what happens when we put stress on the strand. To know if what we're thinking and feeling is love, not just infatuation, we must see how a relationship holds up under stress, whether it grows and stirs, whether it takes on a life of its own. And the process of searching for a testimony is very similar to the process of searching to know when we're in love.

[Reason]

Consider now each side of the triangle of testimony. We begin with reason, or the thoughts in our minds. In describing "the spirit of revelation," the Lord said, "Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart" (D&C 8:2); emphasis added). Joseph Smith once said that we may notice "the first intimation of the spirit of revelation" when we "feel pure intelligence flowing into [our minds;] it may give [us] sudden strokes of ideas" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.151). The Lord told Oliver Cowdery, "You have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, ... you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right" (D&C 9:7-8). In other words, do your homework first. Then feelings and experience can come along to confirm your reasoning.

In a more general sense, a religious explanation for life actually makes more sense rationally than does and atheistic or agnostic explanation. I am impatient with shallow skeptics who say that religious truth must be taken solely on faith, as if no rational evidence for religious propositions exists—and as if no scientific propositions are taken on faith. When Lehi and Nephi in the book of Helaman had great missionary success, Moroni tells us that "the more part of the Lamanites were convinced [that their message was true] because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received" (Helaman 5:50; emphasis added).

Alma told the skeptical Korihor, "All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion" (Alma 30:44). Science tells us that if the earth were even slightly nearer to the sun, all life here would burn up. If the sun were even slightly farther away, all life here would freeze. As I see the destructive power of a tsunami, or a hurricane, or an earthquake, I see no way that we could carry on life as we do if the elements were not held in check by divine laws and powers. If we were truly at the mercy of arbitrary natural forces, wind and sand and tidal waves would knock this planet around like a leaf in a storm.

As for whether God is our Creator, I like the question someone asked: "What are the odds that a tornado spinning through a junkyard would create a Boeing 747?"

It really is more consistent with the scientific evidence to believe in a divine Creator than not to believe in Him. The acclaimed biologist Francis Collins developed that point in a recent New York Times best-seller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Collins led the International Human Genome Project, which in 2000 announced that its team had put together the first complete map of the entire human DNA code. Seeing that complex code as "the language in which God created life," Collins shows that "belief in God can be an entirely rational choice, and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science."

Collins writes that the earth exhibits in just the right proportions all of fifteen scientific "physical constraints" that are necessary to sustain its complex life forms. The likelihood that this unique combination could come together by sheer chance "is almost infinitesimal.... In sum, [without God] our universe is wildly improbable." Thus, "faith in God [is] more rational than disbelief."

Regarding the Restoration, rational evidence that supports Joseph Smith's claims grows stronger every day. For example, when he announced the Word of Wisdom, neither Joseph nor anyone else knew that tobacco causes lung cancer. Consider as well Joseph's prophecy about where the Civil War would begin, or his prophecy that the restored Church would fill North and South America.

Think of Joseph's calling as a prophet while he was such a young man. Within the accepted framework of biblical history, there was nothing unusual about angels appearing to an inexperienced boy as part of a prophetic call. However, one skeptic I know regards the First Vision as "so unlikely." Others reflect the narrow lens of their modern secularism by saying, "We just don't get books from angels." But if the Bible is evidence for anything, read about the callings of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, and John the Revelator. All were called by direct heavenly manifestations. All spoke with God or angels, just as Joseph did.

Consider also the growing body of research that authenticates many ancient practices and other facts in the Book of Mormon, on subjects ranging from the Nephite legal system to geography. Studies by Latter-day Saint scholars on word prints show that the Book of Mormon could not have been written by only one author.

Also, consider the Hebrew poetry form called chiasmus, as clear a pattern as a limerick or iambic pentameter in English. Nobody in the United States had heard of chiasmus in Joseph's day. But, thanks to the work of today's LDS researches, we now know that this striking literary form is scattered throughout the Book of Mormon. Anyone who diagrams the entire chapter of Alma 36 according to chiastic form is in for a stunning and reassuring surprise. Those who wrote on the golden plates had educated Hebrew origins, so they knew and used Hebrew literary forms. But Joseph Smith may not even have known he was translating poetic forms.

LDS scholars have now established enough of a track record that they have shifted the momentum of critical debate in the Church's favor. For example, a few years ago, two Protestant scholars visited Brigham Young University on a research project related to the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which BYU has played a major role. They later presented a paper to their evangelical colleagues that it was a "myth" to assume "that when Mormons receive training in historiography, biblical languages, theology, and philosophy they invariably abandon traditional Latter-day Saints (LDS) beliefs." They concluded that there are indeed "legitamate Mormon scholars ... 'skilled in intellectual investigation, trained in ancient languages'" who "are not an anti-intellectual group." Further, "Mormon scholars ... have, with varying degrees of success, answered most of the usual evangelical criticisms."

These Protestant scholars continued: "Currently there are ... no books from an evangelical perspective that responsibly interact with contemporary LDS scholarly and apologetic writings. A survey of twenty recent evangelical books criticizing Mormonism reveals that none interacts with this growing body of literature. Only a handful demonstrate any awareness of pertinent works. Many of the authors promote criticisms that have long been refuted. A number of these books claim to be 'the definitive' book on the matter. That they make no attempt to interact with contemporary LDS scholarship is a stain upon the authors' integrity and causes one to wonder about their credibility.

"... at the academic level, evangelicals are needlessly losing the debate with Mormons. In recent years the sophistication and erudition of LDS [scholarship] has risen considerably while evangelical responses have not." Moreover, these evangelical scholars have said, "In this battle the Mormons are fighting valiantly. And the evangelicals? It appears that we may be losing the battle and not knowing it." (Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" Trinity Journal of Theology, n.s. 19 (Fall 1998): 180-81, 179-80)

Of course, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell once said, "Science will not be able to prove or disprove holy writ. However, enough plausible evidence" supporting the Book of Mormon "will come forth to prevent scoffers from having a field day, but not enough to remove the requirement of faith." As C.S. Lewis scholar Austin Farrer put it, "Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish."

Science and history never do lead to absolute conclusions about religion. By their nature, science and history are always subject to new evidence and new interpretations of old evidence. Thus, if our testimonies are based completely on empirical evidence or rational analysis, they can still be more like cobwebs than like cables. Reason isn't enough by itself to overcome the full power of temptation or prejudice.

[Feeling]

A testimony therefore needs the second side of the triangle—spiritual feelings from the Holy Ghost. The scriptures are full of references to the influence of the Spirit on our feelings. Alma speaks of "when you feel these swelling motions," in addition to the more rational experience of discovering that truth can "enlighten [our] understanding" (Alma 32:28; emphasis added). Nephi talks to his brothers about being past feeling and chastises them because they refused to feel the Spirit's words (1 Nephi 17:45).

Moroni explains that the Holy Ghost will manifest the truth of the Book of Mormon if we pray with a sincere heart and real intent—after doing our homework (Moroni 10:4-5). Nephi tells us that the Holy Ghost carries His power to the hearts of the children of men (2 Nephi 33:1; D&C 8:2). So the men who talked with the resurrected Christ without recognizing Him on the road to Emmaus said afterward, when they realized who He was, "Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way...?" (Luke 24:32).

This description echoes the Lord's words to Oliver Cowdery regarding the translations process. After Oliver had studied the process in his own mind, he was to ask the Lord. "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 9:8; emphasis added).

The Spirit can also convey a feeling of peace rather than a feeling of burning. On another occasion, the Lord told Oliver, "Cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?" (D&C 6:22-23)....

When I was younger, I somehow had the impression that spiritual feelings were not recognized outside the religious sphere as a legitimate source of knowledge. I have since discovered that inner sight, or inspiration, is an established way of learning. The premises from which scientists reason must come from some source. Those thoughts may come from previous experiments, they might come from personal intuition, or they may indeed come from a divine source. The Book of Mormon tells us that one of history's most celebrated explorers, Christopher Columbus, was directed by "the Spirit of God," which "came down and wrought upon the man" (1 Nephi 13:12).

The German composer Johannes Brahms vividly described the inspired feelings that came to him during the creative process of writing fine music: "I immediately feel vibrations that thrill my whole being.... These are the Spirit illuminating the soul-power within, and ... I feel capable of drawing inspiration from above....

"Straightway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind's eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies and orchestration."

At the same time, Brahms realized that his efforts required great skill and exertion: "Don't make the mistake of thinking that because I attach such importance to inspiration from above, that that is all there is to it, by no means. Structure is just as consequential, for without craftsmanship, inspiration is as sounding brass."

But because inspiration give the best music its highest power, Brahms declared, the work of "composers who are atheists" is "doomed to speedy oblivion, because they are utterly lacking in inspiration."

So there will be both reason and inspired feelings in our experiences with testimony. Yet we know that even spiritual feelings can be forgotten and that sometimes we may confuse lesser emotions with truly inspired impressions. Further, our feelings can sometimes be influenced by unwise people who would manipulate them.

[Experience]

Our triangle of testimony needs one last side to stabilize its total support structure—a side we will simply call experience. Our understanding of truth needs an incubation period, a chance to settle in and take root, just as Alma describes in Alma 32. This is the test of time, the season when we nourish and water the seed we have planted. We must also overcome the opposition and hazards we face after the seed takes root and sprouts, when the sun's heat can scorch the tender plant.

Alma also teaches about the interactive relationship between faith and knowledge as time goes on. When experience confirms our earliest impressions, we are still not in an "either/or" place, where we either "know" everything or just "believe" everything. We experience elements of both knowledge and belief. In the beginning of the process, Alma says we "cannot know" of the "surety" of God's words at first, for we completely lack experience (Alma 32:26). At that stage, we follow our desires as an act of faith. After doing that, we can testify of what we have learned experientially, for our "knowledge [has become] perfect in that thing" (Alma 32:34). We can then stand on that base of knowledge as we take another step of faith, which will lead us to expand our knowledge.

For instance, those who pay tithing when it would seem they cannot afford it are often blessed with new ideas about managing their money; and suddenly they discover something that those who don't pay tithing cannot understand. From this foundation, they can step up to other acts of faith, knowing with new confidence that God keeps His promises....

[F]aith plus action leads to knowledge. That's why Brigham Young said that "more testimonies are obtained on the feet than on the knees."...

During an all-mission conference in Frankfurt, Germany, then-Elder Harold B. Lee quoted to us from Doctrine and Covenants 46 on spiritual gifts: "To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" and "to others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful" (vv. 13-14).

He then bore a stirring witness that he had received the gift to know of Christ's divinity. He invited us to believe him and lean on his testimony. Instantly I knew that he knew. And somehow that added something important to my own testimony....

I offer one more example of how experience has contributed to my own testimony. We have recently enjoyed a number of visits with our seven married children and their children, after having been in Europe for a few years on a Church assignment. I have been amazed and humbled by seeing the long-term fruits of the gospel in the lives of our children, their wonderfully faithful spouses, and now their own children.

When our children were young, there were days when I really wondered if all of our family home evenings and other homemade efforts were making any difference. Once our bishop affectionately referred to our busy little brood, crowded onto a bench at church, as "the Hafen children—curtain climbers, rug rats, and house apes." But a generation later, I can only quote the hymn: "Count your many blessings"—just look around you—"and it will surprise you what the Lord has done."

Each of our grandchildren has a unique personality, but in each young countenance is a certain familiar light. Each of their families has its own style, and none of them is perfect. But all are blessed with a similar blend of love, discipline, goodness, cooperation, and spiritual security. That blend is creating a consistent pattern across all seven families.

I have seen that same blend in the homes of faithful Latter-day Saints around the world. If the gospel is a real force in a family's daily walk and conversation, and if they honestly seek to live what Nephi called "after the manner of happiness" (2 Nephi 5:27), the result is like seeing clothing made from the same pattern or delicious dinners made from the same recipe—regardless of culture or language.

The gospel works when we work to live it, despite the occasional exceptions and the normal ups and downs of everyday life. Then the Lord's promised fruits appear on the tree of life in the family garden, because each tree sprouted and grew from the same kind of seed. "By their fruits ye shall know them" (3 Nephi 14:20; Matthew 7:20). What I have seen in my own children's lives is evidence of the gospel's truth that I would gladly put on the witness stand in a court of law.

I could tell many more stories that have brought my testimony through the tests of reason, feeling, and experience stretched over the years. A testimony really does live and grow organically, like a seed that becomes a tree, and the tree eventually bears precious fruit. I am now in the stage of life where I taste the fruit often enough that I am overwhelmed with wonder, rather than wondering if what I am tasting is real....

I can now say what Elder Harold B. Lee said to our mission years ago: It really has been given to me "by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" (D&C 46:13). That knowledge is not simply the result of one dramatic event; rather, it is the aggregate conclusion from many thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a lifelong process. I know that Christ lives. I know that His gospel is true. (Spiritually Anchored in Unsettled Times, p.51-68)