Updated: Sep 20, 2020
In the months preceding the birth of Jesus Christ, believers in the Americas were in a perplexing position. At the same time that the prophesied signs of his advent were multiplying, a social movement that denied their validity was gaining momentum. The disbelievers made convenient calculations and declared that Samuel's prophecy had passed its expiration date; the promised Messiah was not coming, the Christians had been proven to be duped. Although their interpretation of the timeline was questionable, they treated it like a certainty. Their gloating was repeated loudly and proudly, creating "a great uproar throughout the land" (3 Nephi 1:6-7)
The reaction of the saints is relatable. While continuing to hold fast to their faith, they became "very sorrowful," fearing that somehow or other, the unbelievers were right. Was it possible that their beliefs were mistaken, that the signs they had recognized with rejoicing and an outpouring of the Spirit were an empty promise?
It's funny how destabilizing a lie can become when it's repeated loudly and often enough. It's funny how difficult it is to be confident about the truth when we're deluged with dissenting opinions. I'm reminded of the Asch conformity studies, where participants were given a series of perception tests: 18 sets of two cards, one with a single line and the other with three lines of varying length. The participants had to say which of the lines on the second card matched the line on the first. The correct answer was fairly obvious. But each of them was placed in a room that was filled with actors who were pretending to be test subjects. Some of the time, the actors would answer correctly. Most of the time, they would all give the same wrong answer, and then the test subject would answer last. And 75% of the actual test subjects wound up answering wrongly, at least some of the time.
They were interviewed afterwards to find out what they were thinking. About a fifth of them actually changed their perception. They thought they saw what the majority said was true. The rest were divided between believing that they were the ones who were misperceiving and answering with the crowd or knowing the crowd was wrong, but giving the wrong answer anyway. Only 25% of the test subjects managed to hold onto a true perception and to speak it against the crowd.
I wish I could say that if I were to be part of such an experiment, I would have been among the 25%. I can't. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be among the ones who knew the popular answer was wrong and said it anyway. But I can't say that I would be unswayed by the overwhelming contradictory perceptions of others. Other people's perceptions tend to weigh with me, causing me to question my way of seeing things. That means that for me, certainty takes a lot of work.
Yet, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Humility seems to demand that I be willing to question myself. And safety requires double-checking, to make sure I really am aligned with truth. I believe that the Lord wants us to be discerning and to think for ourselves. Until we take a belief out of the comfortable box of things unquestioned, turn it over in our minds and examine it for flaws and inconsistencies, we don't really own it. It's more like a second-hand treasure that hasn't really become ours. But under careful examination, we discover glitches in our understanding, points of exception or areas where our understanding of the truth is maybe overly simplified. The Spirit can then work on us to fill in the gaps and polish our perceptions, transforming belief into conviction. And convictions get into our core; they become a part of us.
Getting there can be painful though. It means entertaining the possibility that our fundamental paradigms are mistaken which can be terrifying, both to ourselves and to others who share our beliefs. What if we get lost along the way? It's tempting to cling to a culture of certainty rather than risk destabilizing questions. In tranquil times, that's often possible. But in times of intense persecution, we need to deepen belief into conviction in order to endure.
That's what was required of the saints who waited on the sign of Jesus Christ's birth. They had to face not only scorn but the threat of death for their beliefs. In the absence of certainty, they had to dig deep and choose conviction. And then the sign was given, the conspirators who'd plotted to kill them fell to the earth in shock, and not one soul doubted that the Messiah had been born.