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Mormon Studies Testify: R. Kirk Belnap
|Title||Mormon Studies Testify: R. Kirk Belnap|
|Publication Type||Web Article|
|Year of Publication||2011|
|Authors||Belnap, R. Kirk|
|Access Date||30 March 2018|
|Last Update Date||April 2011|
|Publisher||Mormon Scholars Testify|
|Keywords||Ancient Near East; Testimony|
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R. Kirk Belnap
I attempt here to give a brief account of “the reason of the hope that is in [me]” (1 Peter 3:13). Let me begin by saying that I cannot remember a time when I did not feel a love for God and trust that He loves us and watches over us. I also acknowledge that I have been backed up against the wall of faith many a time, but, in answer to prayer, the Spirit of God has always pierced the clouds of doubt or discouragement to enlighten my mind, for which I am most grateful.
A servant of God placed his hands upon my head when I was a young man and declared, “Thou shalt be given special experiences which shall strengthen thy testimony of the divinity of the Gospel.” That prophecy has been and continues to be fulfilled. As a youth I had a number of experiences that taught me that God hears and answers prayers. For example, when I was a 16-year-old high school student in Fairbanks, Alaska, the Lord heard me and came to my aid in a miraculous manner. The divine intervention that helped me to solve a significant problem that I could not solve on my own was astounding, but what impressed me most: I experienced God’s love so powerfully then and have on occasions since that I know for myself that the love of God is indeed “most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:22). I have also learned that what we call “miracles,” those things we cannot explain, do not convince. They confirm, they are an occasional and natural result of faith in Christ, but sure knowledge comes only through the witness of the Spirit of God.
As a child I admired the men and women of faith in the scriptures and soon became a student of holy writ, which has become a life-long love affair. At first I played favorites. I was so taken with the New Testament at age 17 that I was certain it would be my life’s work. Accordingly, I began studying Biblical Greek as a freshman at Brigham Young University (BYU). However, as a full-time missionary in Switzerland and Germany I developed a greatly increased appreciation for the power of the Book of Mormon to bring one to God and could no longer say that there was one volume of scripture that held pre-eminence in my heart. Since then, I have in turn come to greatly value the Doctrine and Covenants, the Old Testament, and the Pearl of Great Price, all the word of God, “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The unity of these inspired volumes became particularly clear to me as I taught Old and New Testament courses during the 1996/97 academic year as a faculty member at BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. This entailed both classroom and on-site teaching, a marvelous experience for our whole family. We had the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with Bible lands and with our students over the course of our months together, in and out of the classroom. It was wonderful to be part of such a community of believers, all intent on learning more about their Savior.
I can’t say when the Arabic seed was planted, but it was already growing when as a missionary I took a particular interest in the many Middle Easterners we met. During my sophomore year at BYU, my Biblical Hebrew professor suggested that I take Arabic. I’d already been thinking that I should study either Chinese, Arabic, or Russian. In spite of the fact that I was then living with a family that spoke Russian and had studied a little Chinese and showed some aptitude, I felt drawn to Arabic. I began to study it and this eventually led to my receiving a fellowship that took us to Cairo for a year. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.
During graduate school, the Spirit of the Lord blessed me in my studies and in my interactions with faculty, students, and others. I was only in residence at Penn two years before the financial needs of our growing family compelled me to find full-time employment. My graduate advisor warned that if I left then I would never finish my degree, but leave we did. The Spirit guided me as I worked and prayed my way through selecting my dissertation topic, doing the research, and writing it up. The results ended up shedding new light on the history of Arabic and drew the attention of highly respected scholars. From previous experiences with the Spirit of the Lord, I recognized its influence at various stages of the dissertation process and can only give God the glory for those insights and subsequent professional endeavors that would not have turned out as well as they have without inspiration from Heaven. Here is one such experience:
12/12/04 12:01 am
Good day. We had a major breakthrough in our research, something I’d felt in my gut but had been hoping to demonstrate statistically:
Students’ attitude about the difficulty of learning Arabic significantly (p=.01) correlated negatively with the students’ perception that their instructors believe in the students’ ability to learn Arabic. In other words, the instructors’ faith in the students’ ability to learn the language correlates with students’ feeling that Arabic is not so difficult. Even more simply put, without assuming causation, the more the teacher shows they believe the student can learn Arabic, the less the student feels that Arabic is difficult, and vice-versa.
This is really a big deal. It gives us real ammunition to back up our subjective observations of the negative effect of the common belief held by Arabs that Arabic is the most difficult language in the world, so difficult that it is more or less unlearnable. I feel particularly grateful because I believe I was prompted by the Spirit to put in those [survey] items, especially the one about the instructor believing in their students’ ability to learn the language.
In short, the Spirit has been a key partner to good things I have been blessed to accomplish in my professional life. I only wish I were better at acting on the light granted me.
Upon completing my Ph.D. coursework I was hired by BYU to set up its intensive Arabic program. This was our first Jerusalem experience (1989). In an unusual development (there were already two Arabists on the BYU faculty), I ended up being asked to stay on at BYU, which has been tremendously rewarding. The atmosphere of faith and open inquiry is intellectually and spiritually stimulating. My life has been blessed in countless ways through my association with world-class scholars who are no less men and women of great faith and character.
I teach mostly Arabic courses. I did not plan or aspire to do so. For years I didn’t really consider myself an Arabist. I have come to recognize that the Spirit of the Lord led me into my present field, an answer to my prayers as a young man to be an instrument to make a difference in the world. Learning Arabic is a challenging matter (one reason being that there is so much hype about it being so difficult to learn). I feel a sense of mission in connection with this in at least two ways. First, in teaching Arabic (particularly in helping to make learning Arabic an enjoyable rather than a tedious process), I have the opportunity to help students come to understand Arabs and prepare them to have positive experiences traveling or working in the Middle East. I feel a sense of mission in building bridges of understanding between East and West.
Generally, when I ask our students why they are studying Arabic, they answer that they are not sure, but they feel it is something they should do. One day in Jerusalem in 1997, I was writing an email message to try to encourage my students as they struggled with the feelings of discouragement that are common to students early in their study abroad experience. As I wrote I commented that I did not believe that they were there studying Arabic by accident. Immediately the Spirit of the Lord let me know in no uncertain terms that they were indeed there by design, that they have a mission to fulfill. I communicated that experience to the students in that email message. Without my asking for a reply, one after another wrote back that they were not certain as to why they were there studying Arabic, but that they had been led to do so. One young man commented that he had never received a clearer answer to prayer in his life. It was at that moment that I realized, more clearly than ever before, that I had been led to be involved in teaching Arabic at BYU, that we have a work to do.
Historically, Christians have considered Islam the enemy, even the anti-Christ. “Christianity” has also dealt harshly with Jews. I believe that God has a special plan in mind for these children of Abraham, for all of His children, but the matter of God’s dealings with Muslims and Jews has particularly been on my mind for decades now. I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with people from many different lands and faiths. I have learned that God is at work in all the world, that He knows best and leads people along patiently. I have learned that He is in charge, that He knows what He is doing, that He rarely forces light and knowledge on us. I have also learned that He works through us. I believe that when we see the big picture, probably after this life, when we understand the extent and wisdom of God’s work with every human being, it will be “great and marvelous” in our eyes (Rev. 15:3). I am sure that the Father of us all is disappointed at the demonization of other faiths. I believe that Islam has played a very important role in challenging “Christianity” and keeping it from becoming worse than it did become in its darkest hours. I suspect this is just one of the eye-openers awaiting “Christians.”
I wish to share one missionary experience from my first few months in Switzerland. One Sunday morning as I sat in the little chapel in Thun and watched the faithful Saints, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, come in and take their seats I was filled with the Spirit of God. I felt overwhelmed with love and gratitude, and I was made to understand that these humble Saints who honor the name of Joseph Smith as a prophet of the living God are a fulfillment of divine prophecy. Here is Joseph Smith’s account of the experience: “He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (Joseph Smith-History 1:33). That prophecy continues to be fulfilled, as the knowledge of God’s work spreads, by word of mouth, by print, and by personal revelation to many seekers of truth.
Some Christians question the mention of Joseph Smith in a “testimony.” I know for myself that the word of God has been conveyed to us and continues to come to us through mortals, through special witnesses. Yes, the heart and soul of our message really is “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). But even Paul, the author of these words, reminds us of the special place of God’s special mortal messengers, that we are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:20). We would know nothing of God’s work in ancient times without these prophets and apostles.
Nothing has changed. I would no more be free of baggage by discarding Joseph Smith than I would by setting aside Peter, Matthew, John, Paul, and Isaiah. To be sure, the witness and revelations of such special witnesses, ancient and modern, are the means, not the end (John 5:39); they were and are and will be given to bring us to Christ and keep us rooted in Him. I believe in Jesus Christ. He is my Savior. I know that without Him I am lost. With the prophet Alma, I have cried out in the anguish of my soul, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness” (Alma 36:18). I have felt that “the chains of hell which encircled [me] about, were…loosed, and [my soul] did expand,” and I have felt to “sing redeeming love” (Alma 5:9). I feel acutely the weakness of the flesh, but I am encouraged by what the Spirit of the Lord has done to my heart. I hope and pray that I will continue, by His grace, to grow up in Him (Eph. 4:13-15; Heb. 12).
My experience as a “born-again Mormon” is that I have not been led in any manner to distance myself from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Joseph Smith. Nor do I detect a hint of this in other Latter-day Saints in whom I perceive the Spirit of God working. Rather, we are led by the Spirit to sit at the feet of Christ’s living prophets and apostles. This is not blind faith. Born of the Spirit, this is a vital, active faith in God, the Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ. My determination and prayer is to be true to the Spirit’s prompting to continue “steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” (Acts 2:42). I thank God for that great opportunity. And let me add my witness in this matter. There are many things I do not know or understand. However, the Spirit of God has witnessed with power to my soul that those who lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are indeed Christ’s apostles. To hear for yourself apostolic witnesses and direction as to how to know for yourself, I highly recommend two recent addresses. The talk given by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s in the Sunday Morning session and “A Living Testimony”
by President Henry B. Eyring, both available at: http://lds.org/general-conference/sessions/2011/04?lang=eng
I invite you to sincerely investigate the matter, trying the spirits (1 John 1:4). If you do not feel led to do so I would enjoin you to beware of passing judgment. I suggest the counsel of Gamaliel: “And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:38-39). Most important, let me add my witness of Jesus Christ. That same Spirit of which I have spoken has revealed to my Spirit, in a manner that transcends the knowledge gained through the natural senses, that He is the Son of God. He lived. He suffered and died for me and you. He arose from the tomb and He lives, for me and for you.
When the Spirit of God comes over me, I feel remade. I feel hope, light, joy—filled with love. And it is light. With it, I can see things I do not otherwise see, my mind is opened to understand. It whispers peace. I testify that I regularly hear the Lord speaking to me in a very personal manner through the scriptures. God has prepared a powerful tool to bring souls to Christ, to help them know that: 1) Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; 2) He has called prophets and apostles and restored truth and keys of authority to perform crucial ordinances; 3) what we read in the Bible is true. The means he has ordained: The Book of Mormon: Another Testimony of Christ.
A few years ago the Lord’s prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, challenged members of the Church to read or reread The Book of Mormon from cover to cover. I, with many others, embraced this counsel. Contained in the book’s final chapter is this important promise:
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
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.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:3-5)
I have read the book many times and received repeated spiritual witnesses of its truth, but when I read that promise again, I felt moved to do as the ancient prophet counseled. Here is my account of what happened:
12/23/04 11:18 pm
This morning I read Moroni chapter 10. I read verse four carefully and bowed my head in prayer and asked that my testimony of the Book of Mormon might be strengthened. I wondered if I was in any position to be asking in confidence. I wondered if I was asking without taking thought to ask, if I’d studied it out in my heart as the Lord counseled Oliver Cowdery [D&C 9:8]. I didn’t feel in any position to insist or push, but I asked more intently. I kept reading and wondered if the Lord would see fit to answer my prayer any time soon. I read thoughtfully through the rest of the chapter….
After some pondering of what I’d read I took a shower. As I showered my thoughts seemed to be directed to significant testimony-building events throughout my life, in rapid succession. I thought about the time I prayed in our Peugeot [in Fairbanks], begging for help to find a lost tool. How powerfully I felt the Lord’s love. I thought of the time I was prompted to bear testimony of Elijah and temple work to the newly-married woman on the flight from Washington to Atlanta.
As I stood in front of the mirror, shaving cream on my face and razor in hand I felt to say, “It’s true, isn’t it.” As I did so the Spirit settled upon me. I felt a warmth spread from my head all the way down my body. I felt peace and gratitude. I knew that the witness I had requested had come. And once again I felt to praise the Lord and acknowledge His great mercy and kindness to me….
20 min[ut]es later: I just told the girls about my experience and bore my testimony of the Book of Mormon as I finished. The Spirit filled me and I testified with fire in my heart. I knew this would happen. Earlier, I felt that the final witness of the truth of the book would come as I opened my mouth to bear witness. What an amazing thing it is, that we mortals can be conduits for the heavenly message, and that our testimonies are strengthened and even obtained in the bearing of them.
12/26/04 11:34 pm
Once again I feel profoundly indebted to the Lord for His grace, for touching hearts in our Sunday School class. [My daugher] said it was a great lesson—which means a lot. I’ve wanted so to help my students to feel a desire to become life-long students of the Book of Mormon, to ask to know of its truth. For many reasons I felt unworthy, unprepared—but I also felt that I had not been given the experiences I had this week just for my own benefit. Yesterday and today I felt prompted that I should tell my class that their fledgling testimonies will be strengthened as they follow the promptings of the Spirit to open their mouths and share what they know or believe or feel. What a blessing it is to be an instrument in the Lord’s hands.
12/27/04 7:21 am
P.S. I was impressed yesterday (or was it the day before?) that in upcoming fireside opportunities I should stress that the Book of Mormon has lessons for our time that we are failing to heed, that we, like the Nephites, need to go to our Muslim brothers and sisters like the sons of Mosiah and serve in Lamoni’s courts, that we need to band together with our good Muslim brothers and sisters against secret combinations. There are just too many who believe that things will only get worse, that there’s no hope for the Middle East. I felt impressed that I should remind them of Elder Nelson’s comments that peace is possible and of Pres. Hinckley’s related comments….
How blessed we are to have the Book of Mormon. What treasures await us as we search its pages, hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Sometimes it takes a little patience, but, without fail, as we prayerfully do so, the Spirit fills us up to overflowing, again and again. The Book of Mormon really is a work for our time. While it is key, we should also feast on the word of God found in the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. How my life has been blessed as the Lord has spoken directly to me through each of these sacred volumes. I know, with the certainty that only God can bestow, that these things are true.
Finally, here is a more recent account that illustrates the working of the Spirit of God in me and others:
2/2/11 5:02 am
I awoke about 4:00 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. Soon thereafter I heard the Call to Prayer and got on my knees. I’ve felt a little distant from the Lord in the past couple of weeks. I haven’t been drinking as deeply from the words of life as usual. I poured out my soul to the Lord, praying for the Spirit….
I felt impressed to do as I felt Sunday, to write to my Sunday School class members…. I also felt some guidance as to how to move things forward in my work. I’ve felt of late that we need to do two things: show students how to reach Advanced levels of proficiency, but also hold out hope for those who won’t make a lot of linguistic progress, but who nevertheless can enjoy significant benefits. I began to think about brain research and benefits of foreign language study.
As I was about to begin writing this journal entry I wondered if I shouldn’t first open the scriptures or perhaps the Conference Ensign to see what the Lord might have to say to me. At this moment my eyes fell on my January 1 journal entry that appeared on the screen and I began to read and knew that here was where the Lord would speak to me this morning. In the second paragraph I read: “How grateful I am for the Spirit of the Lord that can help us to see with eyes of faith.” Amen and amen!
My prayer this morning to be strengthened in my faith in Christ was answered as I read of experience after experience where the Lord had opened my eyes to see and blessed me and others to be instruments to bless….
How grateful I am for the Spirit of the Lord that has worked in me this morning, that has worked in so many of us of late…. I know indeed that the verse I read again this morning in my Jan. 1 entry is true: “redemption cometh through Christ the Lord” (Msh. 16:15), that our kind and loving Heavenly Father sent Him “to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised [literally: those who are pressed down]” (Luke 4:18). This morning I have been “wrought upon by the Spirit of God, and [have] been healed” (3 Nephi 7:22)….
After writing this I felt to kneel and thank my Father in Heaven from the bottom of my heart for His tender mercies manifest in His Son. As I did so the Spirit opened my eyes to see that events of the past couple of days that I felt a little disappointed about are in fact blessings in disguise. I saw that I have been blessed as I’ve tried to follow Pres. Monson’s recent counsel “to thank the Lord thy God in all things” (Alma 34:38), which I read again on the plane yesterday. He also said: “We can lift ourselves and others as well when we refuse to remain in the realm of negative thought and cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude.”
2/4/11 1:25 pm
I’m just back from church. What a treat…. After the meeting…I got into a fascinating conversation with a fellow working here with the State Dept. on water issues…. [He] told me his story. Raised [as a conservative Christian], he couldn’t go through with his plans to be a minister because he couldn’t teach that all will be damned who aren’t baptized (he’d met some great people [of other faiths] while serving in the military). For ten years he and his wife searched but did not find a church they felt comfortable joining (they went to church every week). LDS missionaries found them in the Philip[p]ines. He read the Book of Mormon through in little more than 24 hrs. and prayed about it. He said that all his life he’d hoped to be filled with the Spirit, but only experienced this after praying to know of the truth of the Book of Mormon. He recalls how that he could feel the warmth down to his toes.
Interestingly, he said that a pastor of the congregation they’d been attending shook him for a little when he said, “You’re going to risk your eternal salvation for a feeling?!” That worried him for a bit and he wondered if he should trust the feeling. Our faith will always be tried. I could not help but think of:
And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy; And then shall ye know, or by this shall you know, all things whatsoever you desire of me, which are pertaining unto things of righteousness, in faith believing in me that you shall receive…. (D&C 11:12-14)
The witness of the Holy Ghost is much more than a feeling—though the feeling side of His influence can overwhelm us, and especially long-term memory (which, I believe, better records emotional aspects of experiences). We may feel completely comfortable in trusting the Holy Spirit because our eyes are opened to see and know the truth of things we could not have otherwise known.
R. Kirk Belnap (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) is a professor of Arabic in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University, where he has been since 1988. He has served since 2002 as director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center, a virtual center funded by the U.S. Department of Education that brings together language professionals from twenty major universities in order to increase and improve opportunities for Americans to learn the languages of the Middle East. He previously served as executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic, then editor of its journal, and serves now as president of the association. His research interests include language policy and planning, second language acquisition, and the history of Arabic. He has a particular interest in developing and studying effective intensive study abroad programs and has personally directed programs based in Jerusalem, Damascus, Tangier, and Amman. Since 2007 he has directed BYU’s annual summer intensive Arabic camps for high school students and oversees BYU Independent Study’s Arabic without Walls, an award-winning hybrid distance learning course that allows these and other students to pursue the study of Arabic, supported by online tutors, wherever they might be in the world.
Posted April 2011
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