I wasn't even asking. That's what struck me as odd.
As I knelt and prayed in that dingy missionary apartment in Rock Hill, South Carolina, I was actually pouring out gratitude—for the privilege of being a missionary, for the truths I had come to accept, for the atonement of the Savior. When I turned to the Book of Mormon, I actually bore testimony to God:
"Thank you for this book, for the truths it contains, for the way it's changed my life." I paused. "It's true, isn't it?" But it wasn't quite phrased as a question; it was more of a statement. "It's true, isn't it."
And that's when it happened.
For the first time in my life, I felt a warmth begin to grow in my chest, starting right in the center and spreading until it filled my whole chest with heat and light. I didn't hear heavenly choirs or see angels. I didn't feel chills or cry. I simply felt a burning, and that's the best word for it, that stayed for several minutes before gradually subsiding.
It was a comfortable, yet powerful burning, pulsating and joyful. It was very physical and very real. It took me completely by surprise and overwhelmed me.
And as it started, I asked God, "Wait, is this the 'burning in the bosom' spoken of in D&C 9?" But by the time I formed the question, I knew the answer. And much more.
Like most Mormons, I had been taught plenty of lessons telling me about this "burning in the bosom" promised to Oliver Cowdery. I'd been told this was how God answered prayers, and that I should seek answers in the same way.
A burning means yes. A stupor of thought means no. It's the burning/stupor dichotomy, or in short, B/S.
Oh, I had tried it before, all right. I had prayed and asked lots of questions, waiting and seeking that burning. It had never come. And you know, having never been "stupored" before, I wasn't quite sure how to recognize that one either. Through seminary, Sunday school, a year of college and half a mission, mostly nothing happened at all when I prayed, and the conversation in my head went on until I gave up and decided the Lord had no answer for me.
I didn't realize the conversation in my head was the answer.
That's why I was so surprised that night in 1990 in South Carolina. I had been studying scripture before bed; my companion was already asleep in the next room, and I was just saying my nightly prayer. I didn't realize there was anything unusual going on at all. I wasn't seeking any sign. And yet, I powerfully, unmistakably, burned.
This was NOT how I had been taught things should work.
You're Not Good Enough
Since that time, I've spoken with, or read the thoughts of, many Mormons who are very frustrated by the B/S dichotomy because they've tried it without results. Common expressions are "I don't know if I have a testimony, because I prayed and didn't feel anything" or "I've asked and asked for years if the Book of Mormon is true, and never received an answer."
And yet, many of these people continue to attend church, serve faithfully, even teach the B/S dichotomy lesson to others, all the while feeling "unworthy," unloved by God, and substandard in their faith.
In a religion that places so much emphasis on seeking answers in prayer, and "worthiness" to receive them, many of our brothers and sisters suffer spiritual agony because they've been taught unbelief by the traditions of their fathers—traditions that tell them other Mormons get answers, but they don't. Maybe they're just not good enough. Maybe God isn't.
It's no small thing to feel rejected by God. The pain is real and persistent and awful, and in this case, completely man-made. Let's bring this abuse to an end.
Show Me a Sign!
The desire to communicate with the divine is fundamental in each of us. Our spirits are imprisoned here in telestial flesh, cut off from their native, glorious habitat, lonely and empty. Our yearning for God is a gift designed to bring us home.
In my last post, we discussed some of the ways the Holy Spirit communicates with us to teach us knowledge, and eventually bring us back home, into God's presence. The process relies on our learning to recognize, accept, and act on personal revelation.
But this process also requires faith. It's no small thing to take action based on the thinnest of evidence—perhaps nothing more than a voice resonating inside you—when there are so many other voices in this world telling you to do otherwise. Faith is hard work, and we want something easier.
We want to be shown in an unmistakable way. We want a sign:
Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe. Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it. (Alma 32:17-18)Lest we should miss the point, sign seeking is the hallmark of an anti-Christ. Here's how Korihor put it:
And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words. (Alma 30:43)And Sherem:
And it came to pass that he said unto me: Show me a sign by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much. (Jacob 7:13)Christ said, "A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign." (Matthew 12:39, 16:4)
And yet, Christ also promised signs to those who believe:
And he that believeth shall be blest with signs following, even as it is written. (D&C 68:10) See also: Mark 16:17, Mark 16:20, Mormon 9:24, Ether 4:18, D&C 58:64, D&C 84:65 and others. This is promised A LOT.Here's the point to understand: Signs do not produce faith. Signs follow faith.
But, behold, faith cometh not by signs, but signs follow those that believe. (D&C 63: 9)Those who require a sign before they will believe cannot develop faith:
And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. (Ether 12: 6)Signs which follow faith do not come as a result of what men seek, but come as a result of what God wills.
Yea, signs come by faith, not by the will of men, nor as they please, but by the will of God. (D&C 63: 10)OK, got all that?
It really comes down to the order. If you insist on a sign to convince you something is true, you will not receive it. On the other hand, if you willingly believe based on the thinnest of evidence given by the Holy Ghost, and you act on this belief to develop faith, signs will surely follow.
It kind of reminds me of that old saying about trying to get a loan from a bank: "The only way to get the bank to loan you money is to prove you don't need it."
Well, the surest way to receive a sign from God is to show, by your faithful actions, that you don't require a sign.
That Marvelous Burning
And so, with this foundation in place, we come to Oliver Cowdery and the burning bosom.
As you know, Oliver was scribe for Joseph Smith in the translation of the Book of Mormon. As he worked with Joseph, Oliver also developed the desire to not merely write for Joseph, but also to translate like Joseph. So Joseph asked God, and received a revelation now recorded as D&C 8.
Notice that the beginning of the revelation teaches Oliver about the process of receiving revelation:
2 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.
3 Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.Oliver is also warned that the work of translation must be accomplished by faith:
10 Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not.Well, Oliver evidently tried, but was unable to translate. The next section (9) explains why not:
5 And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you.
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.The Lord, having explained previously that translation work must be done by faith, now explains that Oliver failed to approach it that way.
See, faith requires belief and action together. It's not enough to merely believe. You have to actually do the work that believing requires you to do. In this case, the Lord says Oliver "took no thought" about the translation, other than to ask God to give it to him.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.As the Lord explains, Oliver was required to do more than just ask. He was required to "study it out in [his] mind" before asking.
What does that mean? How do you study it out in your mind?
Joseph Smith himself gives a great summary in his History:
During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness...
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him...
I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know;
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.
So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt.Joseph studied it out in his mind. He labored, pondered, considered, reflected, studied, and at length came to a conclusion for himself. He decided to act on the only answer that made any sense to him. The words of James entered into his heart, Joseph believed them, and made a determination to act.
Only after that lengthy process of preparation, did Joseph put the question to God. Having done all he could to settle the question for himself, he took his conclusion to God.
Nephi describes the whole process in a much shorter format:
For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot. (1 Nephi 11:1)Nephi desired, believed, and spent time in the mental exertion of pondering to reach the best conclusion he could on his own. Only then did God take over to settle the question and turn Nephi's faith into knowledge.
So, getting back to Oliver, as the Lord points out, Oliver skipped all the mental exertion and labor required. He didn't want to work by faith. He wanted to just be handed the knowledge without paying the price to obtain it. He "took no thought" other than to ask.
But let's suppose Oliver had heeded the Lord's warning that "without faith you can do nothing." Suppose he had worked by faith. What might that have looked like?
Perhaps Oliver would have spent quite a bit of time laboring with the plates, staring at the characters, working with the "translators," praying and seeking revelation. Perhaps he might have noticed patterns in the engravings, similarities in the characters. At length, suppose a certain character had stood out to his attention, and a still, small, barely noticed voice had whispered inside Oliver.
Maybe the whispering was only one word. But suppose Oliver had noticed it. Written the word. Pondered upon it further. Looked for other instances of that character. Told the Lord what he thought it meant and asked for more guidance.
Suppose that several hours, or even days into the process, Oliver was hearing the voice more often, paying attention to it, writing what he could, or what he thought, crossing out and starting over, and editing it as he asked for direction.
And finally, suppose that after much effort, by fits and starts, Oliver had finished a paragraph. And he thought it was right.
And then, having paid the price in faithful labor, having "studied it out in his mind," (where the Holy Ghost speaks,) suppose Oliver had presented his tiny translation to the Lord and asked "if it be right?"
What did the Lord promise?
"if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right."
A witness after the trial of his faith.
Once Oliver had paid the price and brought the Lord something to verify, the promised signs could have, and would have, become operative. Notice that the Lord didn't say Oliver would feel good about it, be happy, get chills, or cry great tears of joy. Perhaps those would have been Oliver's emotional responses to having the Lord verify the translation, but the Lord offered a specific, physical sign that would turn Oliver's faith into knowledge.
So let's summarize what we can learn from Oliver's failed attempt:
- You must seek revelation. The Lord will first "tell you in your heart and in your mind."
- You must study it out. You have to act on what the Lord has revealed to you, no matter how slight, before He can reveal more.
- You must work with the Holy Ghost until you have reached a conclusion. It may be a tentative conclusion, but you must be committed to it, and absolutely willing to act upon it. If you're not already convinced, the Lord will NOT convince you.
- Only when these first steps are in place can you expect the Lord to confirm the conclusion you have reached, and that only AFTER your faith has been tried.
Are you starting to see how this faith stuff works? The reason it's evil to just ask for a sign is because it robs you of the experience of struggling in the dark toward the faintest glimmer of light, learning to walk by faith for yourself, instead of by sight. God's work and glory is to bring to pass your immortality and eternal life (Moses 1:39). He won't let you shortcut that process, stunt your own growth, and damn yourself with cheaply won knowledge absent faith. It's evil to try.
Yea, signs come by faith, unto mighty works, for without faith no man pleaseth God; and with whom God is angry he is not well pleased; wherefore, unto such he showeth no signs, only in wrath unto their condemnation. (D&C 63:11)So how do we apply Oliver's lesson in our own lives?
First I'll tell you how we DON'T apply it. We don't tell ourselves and our children, and our classes at church, and our home teaching families that all we have to do is ask God a question and he will cause a burning or a stupor. Remember, this is the B/S dichotomy. By teaching such an idea, we are teaching sign seeking and damning anyone who believes us! This is wickedness.
No, we should learn ourselves, and teach our families, to seek revelation through the Holy Ghost by the still, small voice. You know, just like it says in the scriptures. We must understand the struggle, the mental exertion, the time, attention and pondering required to "at length" reach a conclusion for ourselves, the best we can. Then we must act on that conclusion. Finally, having paid the price, and fully, completely intending to act on what we have learned by revelation, we can go to the Lord for a confirmation of what we have received.
Done this way, it's not sign seeking, because we already believe and are acting in faith. And I have it on good authority that "signs follow those that believe."
But, what if there is no confirmation? No burning, no stupor, no lightning bolt, or dove, or dew, or voice to shake the earth?
Continue on the path you're on. Your faith has not yet been fully tried. Trust the answers the Holy Ghost gives, for that is how they almost always come.
When it Works
He has studied the Book of Mormon for years. He has tried to live its teachings. He believes it is true, though he has never received any sign, despite having asked for one in the past. He is satisfied that it is true because the Holy Ghost has given him light and knowledge through it. Therefore, he works to teach and testify of the truths in the book.
And inadvertently, almost by mistake, he comes to realize why Moroni worded his promise the way he did:
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. (Moroni 10:4)Not true? Why would you ask if these things are NOT true?
Hmmm. Maybe...because you already believe these things ARE true? And you're not asking the Lord to convince you of anything you don't believe, but only to confirm something you already believe in faith?
How would you ask such a question?
"I'm determined to live the teachings of this book because I believe this book is true. Is it not?"
Or as the missionary inadvertently worded it, by the power of the Holy Ghost, "Thank you for this book, for the truths it contains, for the way it's changed my life. It's true, isn't it?"
And the light came on.
And the sign was given.
And the young missionary no longer had faith that the Book of Mormon was true. Because now he knew.
Signs follow belief to confirm what is already believed. Is it any wonder, then, that the ordinance in which we are invited to "receive the Holy Ghost" is called, "Confirmation?"
And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.