When was the last time you felt the Spirit?
Is it a common, regular experience? Is it easy to feel the Spirit? Are there things you read, watch, or listen to that reliably cause you to feel the Spirit?
What does it feel like?
These may seem like unusual questions, yet these questions are—or ought to be—of prime importance to Latter-day Saints. Common situations in which we "feel the Spirit" include testimony meetings, Sunday school classes, priesthood ordinances, and gospel discussions. We may "feel the Spirit" when we visit the temple or the home of a fellow believer. We consider "feeling the Spirit" as a confirmation of truth.
When you get right down to it, we base our testimonies, our acceptance of truth, our understanding of scripture, our relationship with God, and therefore our very salvation on the somewhat ill-defined notion of "feeling the Spirit."
Indeed, "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost." (1 Cor. 12:3)
We equate these feelings with the influence of the Holy Ghost, and then base our testimonies upon these feelings. So we ought to be able to define the influence of the Holy Ghost, and how this influence gives us to know something is true. This ought to be the heart of our study until we have experienced it, mastered it, and can articulate it. We ought to be experts in the things of the Spirit.
We must, as we are admonished at confirmation, "receive the Holy Ghost."
So let's turn first to the scriptures, to see what God has revealed about the Holy Ghost.
The Holy Ghost:
- Will "teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance" (John 14:26)
- Will testify of Christ (John 15:26)
- Is the "spirit of revelation" and will "tell you in your mind and in your heart." (D&C 8:2-3)
- Causes men to speak the will of the Lord, the mind of the Lord, the word of the Lord, the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation (D&C 68:4)
- Will unfold the mysteries of God to them that diligently seek (1 Nephi 10:19)
- Remits your sins (2 Nephi 31:17)
- Cleanses you (Moroni 6:4)
- Sanctifies you (3 Nephi 27:20)
- Is the power by which angels speak (2 Nephi 32:3)
- Bears record of the Father and the Son (3 Nephi 11:32)
For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and there will be no more doctrine given until after he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh. And when he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you shall ye observe to do. (2 Nephi 32:5-6)So, according to the doctrine of Christ, the Holy Ghost will show us all things that we should do, and, if obeyed, will ultimately lead us to encounter Christ while yet in the flesh—which is the very definition of redemption. (Ether 3:13)
Now, with all these mighty miracles worked by the Holy Ghost—revelation, sanctification, cleansing, even redemption—ask yourself this: What might be Satan's MOST EFFECTIVE strategy for capturing as many souls as possible in this fallen world? Where might he focus his efforts? What must he prevent?
I hope by now you realize that the most effective play Satan can make to capture any of us is to interfere with our reception of the Holy Ghost! I cannot overstate the importance of understanding this!
If Satan can prevent you from recognizing and receiving the Holy Ghost, he has won. Period.
Regardless of how you spend your life, what you do, who you serve, what you worship, or how "righteous" you believe you are, without the vital influence of the Holy Ghost, you will be damned. End of story. Everything else we hope to receive from God begins with receiving the Holy Ghost.
Now with this sobering thought in mind, it's time to shake off the chains with which we are bound and examine the unbeliefs about the Holy Ghost that are holding us back. If you're not familiar with the definition of unbelief, please read this post first, and possibly the two that follow it. It's very important to understand the meaning of unbelief.
What follows may not be comfortable to confront, as unbelief never is. I ask you to keep an open heart and consider what I'm about to share. It is important.
The Unbelief of "Feeling the Spirit"
We speak so often of "feeling the Spirit" that it's just an everyday expression among Mormons. We hear it and nod knowingly, having had many of the same experiences ourselves. Here are a few of the more common things we feel. See how many you have felt:
- Strong, even overwhelming, emotions
- Tears, crying, weeping
- Peace, warmth
- Chills, goosebumps
- Pounding heart, shaking, sweating (time to bear your testimony!)
- A "rushing" feeling in the body
- A feeling of being "filled" in the body
I've experienced these feelings, and I'll bet you have as well. In fact, so have my good Christian friends, my good Jewish friends, and my good atheist friends. Many people from many different faiths experience these feelings as confirmation of what they believe. Many also experience these feelings completely apart from religion.
I experience these feelings when watching an exciting movie, an emotional television program, or when reading great literature. Certain music moves me and causes these feelings. I can recall specific movie scenes that reliably produce these feelings every time I watch them. (Yeah, I'll admit I'm moved when Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star. Every time.)
Is that the Holy Ghost? Should I bear my testimony that I "know" Luke Skywalker is "true?"
Do the tears and sentimentality that come with the memory of my father mean that he was similarly "true?" (Way to go, Dad!)
Do the same feelings felt by a Catholic, Muslim, and Evangelical Christian mean that each of their respective religions are "true?"
I'm sorry to say, ALL the feelings above are products of emotion, sentimentality, and normal physiological responses to thought processes. Look at the list again and ask which ones you might feel when going through a really good haunted house.
These are NOT the Holy Ghost. There is NO scripture that tells us to identify the Holy Ghost by any of these feelings. While the Holy Ghost does produce physical signs, the scriptures DO NOT teach us to identify the Holy Ghost by what we refer to as "feeling the Spirit."
Let that sink in for a minute. We don't "feel" the Holy Ghost.
I know, I know. Your seminary teacher, primary teacher, parents, bishop, mission companion and best friend all taught you about "feeling the Spirit." You and I, we grew up with it. And yet for all this "feeling" that was going on, were the gifts of the Spirit manifest? Tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, angels, healings, mighty miracles, and the visitation of the Savior—were these common to our worship experiences while we "felt" the Spirit?
Now, before you throw up your hands and call me a lunatic, consider what I said about Satan, above. What if—just for the sake of discussion—what if old scratch could cause us to "feel" things too?
What if he he were the great deceiver and could, in actuality, counterfeit and deceive?
And what if, possibly, he could get us to misidentify these feelings as coming from God?
And what if this misidentification kept us from ever actually receiving the Holy Ghost and all the blessings and signs that the scriptures most surely promise—because we are satisfied with sentimentality as a substitute?
Would that not be Satan's greatest achievement? Would that not cause the Devil to laugh and rejoice?
But of course, Satan couldn't deceive us, could he?
God says he could, can, and does. (Moses 4:4, D&C 50:2-3, D&C 52:14).
But God, always faithful, has given us the means to avoid deception.
And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice. (Moses 4:4)The key to avoiding Satan's deceptions is to hearken unto the Lord's voice. How do we receive the Lord's voice? By taking the Holy Spirit for our guide.
For they that are wise and have received the truth, and have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, and have not been deceived—verily I say unto you, they shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire, but shall abide the day. (D&C 45:57)So to put it simply we MUST learn to hear the Lord's voice through the Holy Spirit. This is NOT about feeling something. It is about hearing Him.
It is vitally important that we learn to do this, so let's talk about how to do it.
Step One: Intelligence
If the Holy Ghost isn't about feelings or emotions, how, exactly do we receive and recognize the Holy Ghost? How do we hear the Lord's voice?
Let's start with some of Joseph Smith's statements about the effects of the Holy Ghost:
Said Joseph Smith: "No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator." (TPJS 328)Sudden strokes of ideas:
The Spirit of Revelation is in connection with these blessings. A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus. (TPJS 151)Light communicated to the intellect:
We consider that God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; (TPJS 51)The Holy Ghost communicates intelligence, light and knowledge to your mind and intellect. "Pure intelligence" and "sudden strokes of ideas" refer to the somewhat surprising experience of suddenly knowing something you didn't know a moment before, without being taught it. It's just there—in your understanding where it wasn't a moment before. This often happens while pondering and studying the scriptures.
This first Comforter or Holy Ghost has no other effect than pure intelligence. It is more powerful in expanding the mind, enlightening the understanding, and storing the intellect with present knowledge, of a man who is of the literal seed of Abraham, than one that is a Gentile, though it may not have half as much visible effect upon the body; (TPJS 149)"The Holy Ghost has no other effect than pure intelligence." Not chills. Not tears. Not emotion. So the first question to ask when someone has "felt the Spirit" is what intelligence was communicated? What revelation was received? What new knowledge was given? What understanding exists that was lacking before? If none was given, this was not the Lord's Spirit.
When the Lord gives us knowledge in this way, by His Spirit, it is the beginning of our ability to hear His voice, or as Joseph Smith put it, to "grow into the principle of revelation."
Step Two: The Still, Small Voice
Have you ever had an experience when the Spirit was SO STRONG? When you received a powerful witness? When the "Spirit was so thick you could cut it with a knife?" When the "Spirit was so powerful I couldn't even speak?"
These phrases, common among us, describe a powerful feeling that we attribute to the Holy Ghost.
And yet, could not such things also be attributed to Satan?
I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak...the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being (JSH 1:15-16)Notice that the powerful part of the experience was provided by Satan, and the enlightening part of the experience was provided by God. When Joseph cried out to God for deliverance, revelation was received, knowledge was communicated, questions were asked and answered, and the devil was banished.
The fact is, the Holy Ghost speaks in a still, small voice, and NOT a powerful feeling. (1 Kings 19:12, 1 Nephi 17:45) It is a whisper, and only available to those who are listening for it (Helaman 5:30) The voice is not heard with the ears. It comes from inside you. The voice of the Spirit speaks to you inside your soul. (D&C 85:6.)
As you begin to hearken to the intelligence communicated to you in step one, you will develop sensitivity to the Spirit's voice within, so that you can begin to hear it speaking to you when you're quiet and listening. It's quite surprising at first, until you become accustomed to it. With practice, you can become adept at relying upon the Spirit's voice, and the Holy Ghost will speak to you in sentences.
When I say it's surprising at first, here's what I mean:
- Speed: A few years ago, and I still remember it like it was today, I was reading the Book of Mormon and asked a question in my mind about the meaning of a phrase I had just read. I had scarcely formed the thought when my inner voice very clearly, but quietly, spoke a sentence that answered my question. It was clear, unmistakable, and immediate when I asked. The question was answered and light was communicated. It took me by surprise because I had scarcely formed the question when the answer came.
- Familiarity: That voice that answered my question in scripture study was my own voice. It was in the very core of my being, and extremely familiar. I struggled to understand how that voice could be the Holy Ghost when it's the same inner voice that keeps up constant chatter in my head. Yet, that's how it works. Said the Lord to Oliver Cowdery: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)
- Insight: The answer was brilliant, insightful, and filled with light. It was definitely NOT something I knew before and could not have come from me. And yet, it was spoken by my own inner voice. It was spoken by the Holy Ghost.
Step Three: It will Show unto You
The Holy Ghost will also teach us by showing us things.
For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do. (2 Nephi 32:5)Such experiences come in very natural and unremarkable ways at first. You may ask something in prayer and "see" the answer in your mind's eye. I once had to teach an important topic in a gospel class and I wasn't sure the best way to convey it. I prayed and asked God how I should teach the principle, and the Holy Ghost immediately showed me, in detail, the object lesson I was to use and how to incorporate it with the appropriate scriptures. I saw it clearly in my mind, and it was a much better idea than I ever could have come up with on my own.
I try to start each day by asking God what he wants me to accomplish that day. Very often, he shows me people I am to serve or tasks he wants me to do. "Seeing" them seems to be the most effective way for me to understand what is required.
The Fruits of the Spirit
You will be changed by receiving the Holy Ghost; it will bear fruit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)These fruits are not emotions, but states of being. When you obtain the Holy Ghost you will tend to BE more loving, peaceful, patient, gentle, good, faithful, meek and tempered.
Similarly, the receipt of the Holy Ghost tends to be accompanied with the Gifts of the Spirit:
But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, who giveth liberally; and that which the Spirit testifies unto you even so I would that ye should do...that ye may not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men; for some are of men, and others of devils. Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given; (D&C 46:7-8)The gifts of the Spirit include knowledge, belief, wisdom, faith to heal, faith to be healed, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking with tongues, interpreting tongues and others. These are the fruits of the Spirit.
Now about those feelings. When the Holy Ghost has conveyed beautiful truth to your soul, there may indeed be tears. There may be chills, warm fuzzies, or tingles. But these are a RESULT of the information conveyed, not a substitute for it. Once we realize it's the information that's most important, the side effects take a lesser role.
So What's Wrong with Emotion?
When knowledge is communicated by the Holy Ghost, there may indeed be an emotional response, as well as physical responses. But the response is to the intelligence communicated and the knowledge learned, NOT merely to the experience of hearing the voice.
When there has been nothing communicated, but we still "feel" the spirit, we may be sure we are indeed feeling "a" spirit, but it might not be from God. It might merely be our own emotions, or it may be something far more sinister, hoping to deceive us.
Behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world. And also Satan hath sought to deceive you, that he might overthrow you. (D&C 50: 2-3)We put ourselves in grave danger when we intentionally seek to create moving, emotional experiences as a substitute for the teaching of the Spirit.
...too much of the literature used, seen, and quoted in the Church today is just sentimental trash which is designed to pull our heart strings or to moisten our eyes—but it is not born of true spiritual experience. The tendency of our youth to use sentimental stories in Church talks creates a culture of spiritual misunderstanding in which thinking and learning are discouraged. Because our youth often respond positively to sentimentalism, there is a danger that we might cater to that in the Church instruction more generally.... It [emotional sentimentalism] should never be leaned upon as a substitute for spirituality. Reliance on sentimentality will stunt our own spiritual growth by misleading us and filling our understanding with false experiences.You may not agree with me, but I've just got to tell you—the new LDS temple films seem to be directly going after the emotions, rather than conveying more truth and light. Not a word of the script was changed, but I found the sensational special effects, locations, music, and over-acting to be terribly distracting as I tried to hear the voice of the Holy Ghost in the temple. In fact, I couldn't hear the Spirit at all until the film portion of the endowment ended and the information was presented without all the sentimentality and special effects.
Reason and Revelation, Noel B. Reynolds, Academic Vice-President, BYU, Summer 1981.
The tools of Hollywood are poorly suited to convey the things of God, though we do tend to seek them as substitutes, and Hollywood willingly sells them to us for money.
In the temple, I looked around and saw many people in tears, clearly moved by what they had seen, and ready to testify that the new temple films were SO powerful and they felt the spirit SO strongly. I heard many such testimonies about the new films. I'm not criticizing those who feel that way, but I do think they have confused sentiment for Spirit. This is dangerous.
The most important thing you can possibly do in the temple is LEARN...not feel. The endowment is rich in information, symbolism, light and truth. How much of it do we understand? Does more drama convey more truth?
One other point that I must make about feelings:
From time to time, someone tells me they stopped reading a book, or the scriptures, or this blog, because of a "dark feeling" they got when reading it. (I heard this one a bunch on my mission about the Book of Mormon.)
To this I ask: Where do dark feelings come from?
Do you seriously think God is the author of fear, discouragement, anxiety, or darkness? If you believe that, you don't understand God at all.
Such "dark" feelings only have one source and it is not God.
Now, let's suppose that as a master deceiver, Satan can cause all sorts of different feelings in hopes of manipulating our thoughts and actions. What will he send if he wants you to follow a path that leads away from God or keeps you from progressing? Will he send dark feelings and fear of that path to dissuade you, or will he send chills and goosebumps in hopes you'll mistake them for "the Spirit?"
As long as you're unredeemed, he'll do all he can to keep you comfortable where you are, and safely away from God.
And what will he do if he wants you to stop what you're doing and pursue a different course? If you start to make progress toward God, how will Satan react? Will darkness and fear get you to change course? Did he try it on Joseph Smith?
And lastly, will Satan teach enough truth to keep you comfortable, happy, asleep, and certain you are right, just as long as he can get you to reject further light and knowledge? These important questions are worth pondering. Satan's opposition is one of the signs of greater light.
When your emotions become your ultimate gauge of truth; when something is "true" because you feel good about it, and "false" because you don't feel good about it, you have become Satan's puppet—dancing on the stage while he laughs at you, controlled by his strong cords. (2 Nephi 26:22) This is not revelation—it is manipulation. It was Satan's plan from the beginning. God help you if you've fallen for this deception.
Don't confuse sentiment for enlightenment. Settle for nothing less than revelation.
Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God.
This primer has been necessarily brief. There's more to cover (burning in the bosom anyone?) So watch for that in my next post.
Also: There is indeed something of the Holy Ghost that is felt. But it is very subtle, refined, and quiet. It is not emotional; it is informational and difficult to describe. It comes after you learn to recognize the voice of the Spirit.
Also: I've intentionally used Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit or "the Spirit" interchangeably in this post. I did this because these names are commonly interchanged in Mormon teachings and I want this post to be accessible to all. In actuality, the Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost are not the same thing. There are important distinctions to understand, but that must wait for another day. What I've written here is a start, and this post is already too long.
And finally: Don't be discouraged, and don't tell yourself you can't receive revelation. Fact is, you already do receive it. You just don't recognize it because it comes inside you in your own voice. Start paying attention. The problem isn't that it's too foreign. The problem is that it's too familiar. You can do this.
Update February 28, 2018: This post was the opening to a topic I've written much about since. The closing bookend of this topic is found at this link, and makes a great follow up to this post. In it you'll see the "object lesson" I referenced in this post.