Can I Really Know?


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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Boyd K. Packer Story

Some time ago a representative of the Church on a plane bound for a large West Coast city was drawn into conversation with a young attorney.  Their conversation centered on the front page of a newspaper, a large city tabloid with the sordid, the ugly, the tragic openly displayed.

The attorney said the newspaper was typical of humanity and typical of life—miserable, meaningless, and in all ways useless and futile.  The elder protested, holding that life was purposeful, and that there lives a God who loves His children, and that life is good indeed.

The Skeptic's Challenge

When the attorney learned that he was speaking to a minister of the gospel, he said with some emphasis:  "All right!  We have one hour and twenty-eight minutes left on this flight and I want you to tell me what business you or anyone else has traipsing about the earth saying that there is a God or that life has any substantial meaning."

He then confessed himself to be an atheist and pressed his disbelief so urgently that finally he was told:  "You are wrong, my friend.  There is a God.  He lives.  I know He lives."  And he heard the elder proclaim with fervor his witness that Jesus is the Christ.

But the testimony fell on doubtful ears. "You don't know," he said,  "Nobody knows that!  You can't know it." The elder would not yield, and the attorney finally said condescendingly:  "All right.  You say you know. Then (implying ‘If you are so smart') tell me how you know."

The elder had been faced with questions before, in written and oral examinations attendant to receiving advanced degrees, but never had a question come which seemed to be so monumentally significant.

I mention this incident because it illustrates the challenge that members of the Church face—all of them. This challenge particularly becomes a stumbling block to our youth. They face a dilemma when the cynic and the skeptic treat them with academic contempt because they hold to a simple childlike faith.  Before such a challenge many of them turn away—embarrassed and ashamed that they cannot answer the question.

As our friend attempted to answer this question, he found himself helpless to communicate with the attorney, for when he said, "The Holy Ghost has borne witness to my soul," the attorney said, "I don't know what you are talking about."

The words prayer and discernment and faith were meaningless to the attorney, for they were outside the realm of his experience.

"You see," said the attorney, "you don't really know.  If you did, you would be able to tell me how you know."  The implication being that anything we know, we readily can explain in words alone.

 But Paul said:       

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.  
 (1 Corinthians 2:12-14)


The elder felt that he may have borne his testimony unwisely and prayed in his heart that, even if the young attorney could not understand the words, he could at least feel the sincerity of the declaration.

"Not all knowledge can be conveyed in words alone," he said.  And then he asked the attorney, "Do you know what salt tastes like?"  "Of course I do," was the reply. "When did you taste salt last?" "Why, just as we had dinner on the plane." "You just think you know what salt tastes like," said the elder.

"I know what salt tastes like as well as I know anything," said the attorney. "If I gave you a cup of salt and a cup of sugar and let you taste them both, could you tell the salt from the sugar?" "Now you're getting juvenile," was his reply.  "Of course I could tell the difference.  I know what salt tastes like.  It is an everyday experience—I know it as well as I know anything." 

"Then," said the elder, "may I ask you one further question?  Just assume that I have never tasted salt.  Can you explain to me, in words, just what it tastes like?" After some thought the attorney ventured, "Well—I—it's not sweet and it's not sour." "You have told me what it isn't," was the answer, "not what it is."

After several attempts he admitted failure in the little exercise of conveying in words knowledge so commonplace as what salt tastes like.  He found himself quite as helpless as the elder had been to answer his question about God.

The Believer's Knowledge

As they parted in the terminal the elder bore testimony once again.  "I claim to know there is a God.  You ridiculed that testimony and said that if I did know I would be able to tell you exactly how I know.

"My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt.  I am no more able to convey to you in words how this knowledge has come than you are able to perform the simple exercise of telling me what salt tastes like.  But I say to you again, there is a God.  He does live.  And just because you don't know, don't try to tell me that I don't know, for I do."

Young people, do not apologize or be ashamed because you cannot frame into words that which you know in your heart to be true.  Do not repudiate your testimony merely because you have no marvelous manifestations to discuss.

Lehi saw in his dream those who "tasted the fruit," and "were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost"  (1 Nephi 8:28).

We sympathize with you and know how difficult it is to hold to the truth, particularly when professors of worldly knowledge—some of them counterfeit Christians—debunk and scoff.  We know from personal experience that you may have some doubts.  You may wonder at times, "Can I ever really know for sure?"  You may even wonder, "Does anyone really know for sure?"

President David O. McKay told of his search for a testimony as a youth. "I realized in youth," he said, "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."  He continued:

"I remember riding over the hills one afternoon thinking of these things and concluded 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…I knelt down and with all of 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 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.  Nor was that the only occasion.  However, it did come, but not in the way that I had anticipated.  Even the manifestation of God's power and the presence of His angels came, but when it did come it was simply a confirmation; it was not the testimony."

In answer to your question, "Can I ever really know for sure?" we answer, "Just as certainly as you fill the requirements, that testimony will come."  The Lord has never said, nor was it ever pretended, that this testimony yields itself to scientific investigation, to mere curiosity, or to academic inquiry.

In answer to your question, "Does anybody really know?" yes, tens of thousands know. The Brethren know. Your parents know.

I have respect for the truth. It is wrong to fabricate, to invent, to mislead.

There is another dimension also. When one has received that witness, and is called to testify, for him to dilute, to minimize, to withhold would be grossly wrong.  It is in the face of this that I feel the urgency to bear witness.  And I bear my solemn witness that Jesus is the Christ.  I say that I know Jesus is the Christ, that the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored to Joseph Smith, a prophet of God, that David O. McKay (president when this address was given) who presides over this Church is a prophet of God. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen. 

"Can I Really Know?" - Boyd K. Packer, Conf. Report Oct. 1964