Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Testimony and Gratitude

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wanted to share a story from my life about gratitude and how it changed my life during one of the times of my life when I was at my least thankful.

We have all experienced times when our testimonies felt weak or inadequate. Usually we find ourselves saying “How can I get to where I was? How can I find my faith again?” I propose to illustrate how the principle of gratitude can help us build our testimonies. To do this I will mostly rely on a single story from my mission.

There are three steps I want to point out to building your testimony with gratitude, which you will see in this story.

1. Choosing to believe blessings come from God,

2. Choosing to give credit to God,

3. Choosing to act on the blessings God presents you with.

Choosing to believe blessings come from God.

There was a moment, about 5 months into my mission, where everything changed. It was the moment when I went from being an unwilling, unhappy missionary to a happy, and successful missionary.

This is the story of when it “clicked” for me. It is probably the key point in my mission, if not my life, and you’ll notice that it all hinges on gratitude.

When I first arrived on the island of Taiwan, my mission president asked me “what sort of companion do you want to have?”

Knowing how incredibly lazy I am, and wanting to be the best missionary I could be, I answered immediately with “one who works hard.”

President listened.

Man, did he listen.

I was blessed with a hard working trainer. But the phrase “hard working” doesn’t quite encompass the intensity of this great missionary. He was driven. He was a maniac. I’ll try to explain just how much this guy loved working.

Most evenings we would spend our time knocking on every door we could find. Companion knew that it took about X minutes to get home on bike, so when we reached X minutes until curfew, he’d knock two or three more doors, till the time was X minus 1 minute. We would then have to jump on our bikes and pedal our brains out to try and make it home before our 9:30 curfew.

I hadn’t ridden a bike in years, so usually he would get ahead of me and I would get frustrated that he wouldn’t wait up.

He’d say “Can’t wait! We’ll be late! Push harder!”

I’d say “I can’t!”

He’d say “Where’s your faith, elder?!”

Then I’d pedal harder so I could try and punch him in the face...

We lived in an apartment on something like the thirtieth floor. There was no air conditioning and we were on a tropical island. Because companion was obsessed with using every single moment and then rushing home, we’d arrive sweaty and breathless, then spend the rest of the night with a fan on, trying to get cool again. We had the choice of leaving the windows open to let in a breeze, but also let in mosquitos, or keep the mosquitos out and die of heat.

His commitment level was something I struggled to match. I loved the idea of working as much as I could, but sometimes it almost seemed like he wanted to make things even more difficult for us, as if our suffering would somehow bring us greater blessings in the work. This method started to grate after a few days. It made me angry after a couple weeks. After a month I was full of resentment and anger.

After 6 weeks – one transfer - I was pretty beat. We had no baptisms during that transfer which was a first for my companion. He had never had a transfer without at least one baptism.

The night before the new transfer we arrived home as usual, smashing through the apartment door just seconds before we were due to call in and report our work for the day. Companion was furious that he was reporting his end-of-transfer numbers with a big fat zero in the baptisms column.

I, on the other hand, sat in my chair in front of my fan and sulked. I probably should have updated the area book or made some plans for the next day or studied the language or something. Instead I let my mind wander.

As I sat there in the heat I did the thing that missionaries should probably never do. I started thinking about home. It was late May. Every year in May I would take a trip to Disneyland. I thought about previous trips.

My thoughts went something like this: If I were home right now, I’d be in Disneyland. I’d ride a roller coaster. I’d get myself a milkshake. And most of all, I’d sit down in New Orleans Square and listen to the jazz band there.

I don’t remember all the items on my list of “things I would do if only I were free,” but there were about 5 things I wished I was doing that being on a mission simply wouldn’t allow.

I went to bed that night angry and frustrated.

About an hour into trying to fall asleep in the sweltering heat, I rolled over and saw my companion still kneeling by his bed, praying. I selfishly thought to myself that he was probably praying about me – praying that I would start working harder so he could get back to his precious baptisms.

The next day was a new transfer and we took over a neighboring proselyting area. That made our area perhaps the largest in the mission both in size as well as population. Companion decided we ought to go to the other area and visit a recently baptized member who hadn’t been showing up to church lately. It would also give us a chance to start learning the new roads. So, first thing in the morning, we rode across a bridge we lovingly called “The Bridge of Death,” and went to find our member.

She lived on top of a small mountain on the far side of the new area. The ride was excruciating. Finally, we got to the top and knocked on the door.

It turned out she wasn’t home in the middle of the day on a work day. On further contemplation, we realized she might have been working at her job instead of home for our convenience.

I remember thinking “Jeez, Companion, you couldn’t have called first to check?” I might have even been so rude as to say it out loud.

So we started riding back down the hill. My companion was going super slow. I asked him why he was going so slowly.

“I hate going down hills.” he said.

I said, “Going down is the best part!”

He shook his head. “No, I hate it. I like going up. Going down is… scary.”

Our next task for the day was to try and visit a former investigator to see if we could get her to come back to church again that Sunday. And her house was on the top of another mountain. In our old area. On the farthest point possible from where we currently were.

So, back across the Bridge of Death we went.

Back in our old area we started up the mountain to our investigators home.

Now this road remains, to this day, the steepest road I’ve ever seen. Maybe you’ve seen the movie Kung Fu Panda? You may remember when it shows the panda trying to climb the endless stairs to the temple? It was like that, except it was a road instead of stairs. It was so steep we couldn’t ride up the road even in our lowest gear. We had to zig zag back and forth across the road to incrementally gain altitude. Occasionally we would jump off the bikes and simply walk them up since that was just as fast as riding. We would see people on scooters try to drive up, only to have their scooters die halfway up.

We finally reached her door and knocked.

Not surprisingly, in the middle of the day on a work day there was nobody home.

My companion cheerfully opened the area book and started looking for a less-active member to visit.

I sat and stewed, blaming my companion for having such poor plans for the day and dragging me across the entire area and up one mountain, then up another, and murmur murmur murmur…

Eventually he chose somebody for us to visit. I knew basically how to get there, so I decided to take the lead.

I set a goal at that point that I would not touch my brakes.

I kicked off, and started down the mountain road.

I don’t know how fast we were going, but I don’t recall ever going faster on a bike. My nametag clung to my shirt in terror. My poor companion was probably tortured by his desire to stay obedient to the rule of always staying with your companion, and his fear of going down hills.

We came to a stop under a freeway overpass. After a few minutes, Companion caught up, looking only slightly terrified. I think he figured I was upset at that point because he asked if I wanted to grab a bing-sha (basically a slushy) before our next appointment. I happily agreed.

Once we arrived at the home of the less-active member, she would not let us into her home, but she did stay in the alley to talk with us. My grasp of the language was poor, and my interest was low, so I found myself walking around, peering into crates, and examining our surroundings.

Only looking back do I realize just how rude and unhelpful I was. At the time I felt like I was acting perfectly appropriately considering my circumstances.

The alley was a row of dingy homes on one side, and a long brick wall on the other. behind the brick wall was a high school. The building of the high school was a few stories taller than the wall and the upper floor had a large window propped open to let in the breeze. I leaned against the wall and waited for my companion to finish talking with the member.

Just then, from out of that upper window, I heard the school band start blasting out some the best sounding big band jazz you’ve ever heard. I mean it was HOT. It sounded great. I perked right up and started edging even closer to that open window.

My companion’s eyes got wide and he gestured for me to get away from the wall. I knew he was thinking “Babylon alert! Babylon alert!”

I pretended I didn’t notice.

“Companion!” he hissed at me. “Come on!”

Reluctantly, I pulled myself away and stood next to my trainer till we finished our visit with the member. Strangely, the band finished their song and remained silent the rest of the time we were there. As we got on our bikes and headed to lunch I asked my companion if he heard the band. His response was “We’re not supposed to listen to stuff like that.”

I opened my mouth to say “I used to go to disneyland every year and one of my favorite parts was listening to the jazz bands.” But instead I just sat on my bike with my mouth open.

In my mind I went over all the things I had lusted after the night before. The roller coaster ride, the shakes, the jazz band, and so on. As I thought about it, I realized that every single thing I had thought about I had already experienced that day as a missionary. The ride down the mountain was more thrilling than any roller coaster. The bing-sha was just as delicious as any shake. The jazz band was the best I’d ever heard. And so on.

It felt like a bolt of lightning striking me. I can’t think of how else to describe it. That was the moment I made the decision to see God in my life instead of coincidence. (All it took was a literal brass band to get me to pay attention.)

I realized that it wasn’t even noon and already a loving and merciful Heavenly Father had given me not just peace, but the specific things that I had insisted to myself I needed to be happy.

I hadn’t prayed about it. I hadn’t told God about how badly I wanted to be home. I didn’t complain out loud.

But in that moment it became shockingly clear to me that God knew what was in my heart and mind and how hard it had been for me. And more than that – that He wanted me to be happy and would bless me for serving him.

I had always had a testimony. But suddenly I had a new heart. A grateful heart.

I was able to let go of my resentment. I was able to start focusing not on how difficult my life was, but how blessed it was. The work was the same. I was different - because I saw every good thing in my life as a blessing from God.

Pause. Time out.

Can you see how nothing had changed for me until the moment I recognized God’s hand in the good things in my life? If I hadn’t recognized that those little blessings came from God I would have just gone on as I had. I could have chosen to believe that the jazz band was a freak coincidence. But once I accepted the hand of God, everything changed in a big, big way.

Lesson one: Choose to believe the good things in your life come from God.

That would be a great story right there. I could just leave it at that and it would be perfectly satisfying. But there’s more.

There’s Companion’s side of the story.

Lesson two in letting gratitude build your testimony: Choose to give credit to God. In other words, “Give Thanks.”

Gratitude and Testimony
The Healing of Ten Lepers
About a year later I was in a totally different area serving as a district leader. One of my zone leaders was my old trainer, now just a few days from heading home. We had a chance to go on exchanges one night. (That’s where you swap companions for a day or so.) We talked about how the past year had gone for each of us. The subject of that first transfer came up. I told him my story.

He said: “I remember that day very well. It was also the day my mission changed forever.”

I asked him to explain.

That night, when I had noticed him kneeling at his bed for an hour, he had also had his own change of heart. Here’s what he said to me about that night:

“I had never had a transfer without a baptism. The mission president had told me the very best thing I could do for my trainee [me] was to have a baptism in the first transfer, and I had failed. I was depressed. I was angry. Everything seemed to be going wrong. I thought it was the worst day of my entire life. So when we finished the last day of the transfer and went to say our personal prayers I ran into a problem: You know how you follow a pattern in your prayers? Like, ‘Heavenly Father, I thank thee… I ask thee…’ like that? Well I still remember my prayer. It was like this:

“‘Heavenly Father, I thank thee…’

“then I couldn’t think of anything for about five full minutes. Literally nothing. Do you know how long five minutes is when you’re praying? It’s forever. Finally I knew I had to say something, so I said ‘I thank thee… that we didn’t die.’

“Then I remember thinking that was about the most lame prayer ever in the history of lame and I should do better. So I kept thinking. What can I be thankful for? There’s got to be something. So I was kneeling there, trying to think of something else to be grateful for. After a while I was like, well, I guess that stupid fan feels pretty good right now. ‘I thank thee for this electric fan.’ What else? Well, I guess there aren’t very many mosquitoes in here right now. ‘I thank thee that there aren’t too many mosquitoes in here tonight.’

“This went on and on. Eventually it got easier, and soon I couldn’t keep up with all the things I thought of that I was thankful for. I ended up spending the entire hour praying about things I was grateful for. I didn’t ask for anything at all. I had never done that before. When I finished, I felt more refreshed and uplifted than I ever had over my whole mission. It changed my attitude about training, and about being a missionary, and about everything. I felt closer to God than I had ever been before.”

Companion told me that from that point on whenever he found himself struggling he would have a prayer of gratitude and things always got better.

Pause again.

Can you see how the act of thanking God opened the conduit of revelation for my companion? How he was able to go from depressed and dismissive to grateful and acknowledging of God’s love for him?

Elder Bednar says that “Gratitude enlarges the conduit for revelation.” If we need revelation we might consider first being grateful.

Lesson two: get on your knees and actually thank God.

Now that’s not quite the end of our missionary story. There’s what happened afterwards, which illustrates the third step in developing a testimony through gratitude: choosing to act on the blessings, or in other words, being changed by gratitude.

My companion and I had had a dismal transfer. No baptisms, and very little in the way of prospects for the work we had covenanted to do. However something changed in both of us that one special night and day and it was evident in our work.

For me, I changed my lousy behavior. It was easier to do because I started training myself to see God in all the good in my life. I made myself pay attention in discussions, but more than that, I was determined to be Alfred to my companion’s Batman.

If he needed an address, I would have it ready. I’d learn the discussion so that if he needed me to take over at any point for any reason I would totally be there. If he needed me to make phone calls - a task which I hated with the fury of a thousand suns - I would do it.

I was not going to be grateful and murmur at the same time. I don’t think that’s even possible. I latched on to my new, thankful attitude and refused to let go, even when my companion said “pedal harder!”

Within a week we had 16 people committed to baptism. By the end of the transfer we were the highest baptising companionship in the Asia Area. Our convictions were strong, and the power of the Holy Ghost went with us to discussions. And I spent the rest of my mission enjoying my life instead of suffering through it.

I believe those results had more to do with our attitude of thankfulness than anything else.

Lesson 3: let the blessings and your gratitude for them change your behavior. Change without motivation is hard. It will be easier when you’ve gone through the first two steps and found a desire to be changed. And you’ll soon look around and wonder how you ever could have struggled, how it was possible that you could have thought your testimony was flagging.

President Hinkley said that “Gratitude is of the very essence of worship. ... When you walk with gratitude, you do not walk with arrogance and conceit and egotism, you walk with a spirit of thanksgiving that is becoming to you and will bless your life.”

Can you see how much easier it is to recognize God, when you are genuinely grateful for his blessings?

During this Thanksgiving and holiday season, I am grateful to a loving God who patiently pours out blessings on me, even when I don’t notice them. I know He loves us and blesses each of us. I wish you a peaceful and abundant life, and the ability to recognize the source of those blessings.


  1. Thank you Greg. This article makes me happy inside. It demonstrates to me yet again that belief is a choice. It is something we have complete control over. When we choose to believe that all good things come from God, and we give credit where credit is due, things change for the better. We can't explain how or even why much of the time, but things do change for the better and we become happy in ways that those who chose to ignore God's goodness never experience. Thank you again for making me happy today.

  2. Great mission story, thanks for sharing!