Discovering That What I Thought Was The Spirit Was Not

800px-Erdfunkstelle_FuchsstadtFrom my youth I’ve wanted to do right. A desire to follow the Holy Ghost occupied much of my spiritual reflection in my teens and early twenties. I made it a point to be aware of my feelings, and after a time I identified a few particular feelings that I identified as being the Spirit.

The most powerful of those feelings was a compulsion to do or not do a thing. When I defied that compulsion I felt guilty and unworthy. I sought the Lord’s guidance in prayer on even very minute matters, and so I would feel compelled in things as small as which route to drive home or what color shirt wear.

The summer after I got married, I took a construction job doing residential framing. One Friday afternoon as we were cleaning up, my boss told me that he would be working Saturday, and that I was welcome to join him if I wanted to get some extra hours in. I was looking forward to the weekend and had no desire to work, but I felt that familiar compulsion come upon me, the feeling that God wanted me to work those hours on Saturday.

When Saturday morning came, I defied that compulsion and chose to stay home. And what happened? I spent the day with my wife and had one of the best Saturdays of my life. I don’t remember what we did — probably just went to garage sales or enjoyed a walk around Springville — but I vividly remember how wonderful it felt.

For many of you, this might seem like a trivial experience, but for me it was life changing. With that choice, I was (more or less) free from a taskmaster that had governed years of my life. Now I worry less, I smile more, and I don’t feel the weight of eternity looming over every small decision.

Last summer, I talked with my sister Jade about this experience. She shared with me her own story, which I transcribed as best I could. With her permission, I share it here:

When Finding Nemo first came out, I…this is like the epitome of when I was unhappy, super-Mormon…I think Shelley Moulton had invited me to see Finding Nemo. I was really excited about it, and I hoped I would never get a bad feeling about it because I’d interpret that as the Holy Ghost telling me not to. Self-fulfilling prophecy, so of course I felt bad about it. It sounds really frivolous now…but it was a major internal conflict. They say the three main things you definitely go to hell for are…no, I don’t know. All I know is that denying the Holy Ghost is one of those things that would make you a son of perdition. Later, on further clarification I learned that it was if I had had a vision, or some kind of heavenly witness. So I thought I’d become a daughter of perdition if I went to see Finding Nemo. But I went to see it anyway, and I was totally guilt-ridden the whole time, and really scared.

Even though I didn’t change immediately after that, that was the epitome of what I don’t ever want to do again.

I found that I wasn’t the only one who had struggled with that compulsion, and identifying it as the will of God. So, for any of the rest of you struggling with the ham-fisted force of an oppressive God, I share my discovery: God is love; the Holy Ghost is not guilt. I wish I could say that coming to that conclusion is as simple as my story here, but it’s not. My experience that Saturday morning didn’t suddenly make those compulsions disappear. What it did was shift my spiritual paradigm in a way that gave me the courage, strength, and hope I needed to ignore them.

What is the Holy Ghost? I can’t answer that by pointing at a specific feeling anymore. But I find greater peace in my everyday life, and my “confidence wax[es] strong” in a way that it never had before. I feel love for God and for my family in a way that I could not then. These gifts lead me to believe that the Spirit is still active in my life, even if I can’t point my finger at Him in a particular emotional manifestation anymore. Now I make decisions by thought rather than guilt, and life is good.

67 comments for “Discovering That What I Thought Was The Spirit Was Not

  1. Thank you for this post–so many important ideas here.

    I am continually disappointed at the LDS cultural tendency to describe the effects of the Holy Spirit solely as “feelings”–as if none of us ever had feelings that _weren’t_ the Spirit.

  2. As long as we’re arguing by anecdote, I’ve discovered that feelings of guilt and compulsion can come from God.

  3. This is interesting. While I do believe the spirit often speaks to me via hunches, I also accept that sometimes I have crazy hunches that are not spiritually manifested. I kind of have a three step process for discernment.

    1. What’s the worst that could happen if I follow this hunch?
    2. Does it make sense in relation to the rest of the Gospel as I know it?
    3. Ask my wife.

  4. Adam, perhaps you’re right. But whatever god that is is a god that I’m done with for now. Sometimes we feel guilt for sins, and sometimes we feel guilt for non-sins.

  5. It certainly is convenient to believe that anything you feel strongly about–no matter how idiotic or prejudiced–must have divine sanction because you feel it strongly.

  6. I agree completely. In my younger life, I could have written the start of your post, as it reflected me completely. At the same time, I was guilt-ridden and somewhat neurotic.

    I then had several very profound experiences. They were overwhelmingly spiritual where I felt I knew exactly what God wanted me to do regarding some very specific questions I had at those times. Unfortunately, the exact opposite of what I felt to be answers from God happened. My life and marriage nearly fell apart.

    It did free me from the neuroticism of bothering God about every little thing. I believe we have free agency for a reason and God doesn’t really care about the majority of what we do as long as we’re trying to be good people. My prayers have changed from asking God for specific things to asking that as I muddle through this life that I’m at least headed in the right direction.

    I am much less “sure” anymore, but much more at peace in my uncertainty. Life is much more free and happy.

  7. Great post. There’s something to be said for identifying when an urge was *not* the Holy Ghost. It’s an honesty thing, I think.

    (I know people who have announced that the Spirit told them that they’re having a baby with Down’s Syndrome, but who never said, “I guess I was wrong” when all their babies were born without a disability. I know people who were told by the Spirit that they’re having or a girl . . . but had a boy. Or who were told they’re having a boy, but had a girl. Or the Ward member who put their house on the market in the middle of the school year because Heavenly Father wanted them to move immediately . . . and then the house sat and sat and sat on the market for nearly a year and a half. Never did I hear back from these people that, well, maybe they interpreted the Spirit incorrectly. Talk about taking the name of God in vain!)

  8. The withdrawal symptoms of certain psycho-active medications (and no doubt certain “mental” illnesses in the absence of such medications) can produce the most extremely intense spiritual feelings imaginable. One of the reasons why individuals should do their best to subject their more eccentric religious beliefs to the test of rationality.

    A spiritual feeling in favor of something that is obviously irrational by any other standard (and in particular that which no one else believes in) is a dangerous thing, because it is probably not the Spirit at all.

  9. Important topic. I recall having an overwhelming “spiritual experience” watching “Legacy” in the MTC several years ago. I had seem the film before and thought it was marginal at best – but for some reason, I was so affected by it that I cried from the opening credits to the closing. The next day I realized it was just PMS.

  10. I’ve also had compulsions that I mistook for spiritual promptings — usually guilt and fear based promptings to “repent” for things that weren’t wrong or, in some cases, that I didn’t even do. A few years ago, I found some effective management mechanisms and I’m thankful every day for that. My quality of life has improved dramatically.

  11. Are you encouraging people to doubt thier past spiritual experiences?

    We need to look for more spiritual experiences in our lives, not go back discredit them.

    You write “the Holy Ghost is not Guilt,” However remember that Godly Sorrow is a gift of the Spirit. So, the questions is how do we tell the difference between worldly guilt and Godly Sorrow?…I’d say if it leads to repentance, its Godly Sorrow.

  12. I like your thoughts about a loving God that allows us agency, and free reign in many of our choices. But I’m uncomfortable with the either/or tone of the post and some of the comments. The scriptures offer good examples of both sides of this discussion.

    Nephi did something that most would consider “obviously irrational” in the moment by killing Laban. He struggled mightily at that moment, but after considering the consequences (and being confident that he was indeed being instructed by the Spirit) he followed the prompting. Alma the Younger was wracked by guilt for his sin, but that proved to be a phase of repentance as he later felt the embrace of the Savior’s love.

    We also have many examples of Christ dismissing the Pharisees for their rigidity and their rejection of the spiritual side of the law.

    I think the key is discernment. Learning of, listening to, and following the Spirit require practice, patience, and trial and error. And for me, that’s where the love and mercy of a loving God really come in: He has mercy for me in loving me and forgiving my mistakes.

  13. Eric, I am not encouraging doubt. I’m encouraging honest examination and engagement. The spiritual paradigm of my youth served many good purposes. It kept me out of trouble. But it was also very brittle. I remember almost leaving the church when I discovered two scriptures that contradicted each other.

    My new outlook is more resilient and joyful. Now my testimony isn’t based so much on scriptural or prophetic inerrancy as on my own appreciation for the glory of God in my soul. Each has been valuable in their way, and perhaps some great internal revolution in my future will cause me to look at my current state in the same way I now look at my past state. I don’t know that my youthful self would have gotten anything out of reading this post. I hope not to destroy anyone’s faith.

  14. As a missionary, I remember hearing a member relate a story that completely filled me with the spirit and increased my testimony. I walked away profoundly moved and, as a result, made some decisions that directly led us to begin teaching a wonderful family and help them be baptized – we found them that very evening! I have since learned that the story was unquestionably apocryphal, a myth that had been circulating around members in that area. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

  15. The scriptures tell us that God speaks to us “in our own language.” I take this to mean that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for what is and what is not truly revelation. I think that learning this language (which might be unique to us as individuals), listening to it, and having the courage to follow it, might be one of our main challenges here in this life.

    Certainly we should be doing as much as we can with our own faculties: our brains, our emotions, our hard work, etc. The Spirit should supplement this.

  16. In College I had a literature professor that talked about this a lot. He hated the cutesy tear jerker stories that were frequently used in talks and lessons at Ricks College. He had a strong dislike for the Especially for Mormons series of books. There is a difference between the Holy Spirit and emotions. I have thought about his complaint often through the years as a way to distinguish between an emotional moment and something truly inspired.

  17. The following is my own opinion:

    My strong suspicion is that God speaks to man far less than we think. I suspect he wants us to deal with most issues on our own.

    Does that mean he doesn’t assert himself regularly? No. But, the instances are limited and obvious, not just a few feelings. I think as a people we vastly overstate God’s individual, daily influence in our lives.

    I know this is radical but it is the only way I can square my own experiences with many of the situations discussed above.

  18. I have a few similar experiences.

    1. Praying that I marry my first husband. I had such emotional feelings I feel for sure the spirit was speaking to me. It was the worst decision I ever made and I know that God would never have lead me to marry such an awful person. I misread that one.

    2. At Disney during one particular Disney parade, I had such a moving experience and it was more powerful than most anything I’ve experienced. Wow, it felt quite similar to my feelings in some of the most profoundly spiritual F&T meetings or Especially for Youth talks or devotionals. But surely the Spirit was not speaking to me through Mickey Mouse.

    I agree with Steve. I believe that God is not a micromanager. Yes, He guides us when we need it and sometimes intervenes. But for the most part, he really isn’t worried more about my finding my keys and answering my prayers asking me to help me find my keys. If He can step in for the key-prayer, why not answer a prayer for a family whose child has been abducted in the same way? These stories in F&T meetings are such a turn-off for me and trivialize God.

  19. The God and Jesus do not have daily interventions in our lives. The what the third member of the Godhead is for. The Holy Ghost can be our constant companion and influence our lives each day, hour, and minute.

  20. Eric, no one is doubting the great influence of the Holy Ghost. Quit trying to take offense at a post where none is intended. Instead, try and understand what folks are actually saying here.

    If you want, I’ll try to spell out for you what I think the gist of this post is. Sometimes we ascribe to God what is actually not from God. It trivializes our Father in Heaven’s power and love to ascribe mistakes to him. It also disrespects our Father in Heaven to assume that he takes joy in seeing his children crippled by neurotic obsessions with following the Spirit over things like which toothpaste to purchase.

  21. “Sometimes we feel guilt for sins, and sometimes we feel guilt for non-sins.”

    I, for one, feel guilty when I do something wrong and don’t feel guilty when I don’t do something wrong.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m just strange like that.

  22. In my experience, revelation has more to do with the communication of knowledge than it does with feelings–although feelings can also be important: “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost.” (D&C 8:2-3.)

    I firmly believe that God wants us to make many–and possibly most–decisions *without* being told what to do. Otherwise, how can we ever become like him? God wants wise, thoughtful, and intelligent sons and daughters, not mindless robots.

  23. One more thing: Who is it that *doesn’t* want us to make decisions? That *doesn’t* want us to be free? That wants us to be mindless slaves? It’s not God, that’s for sure.

  24. Sorry, one more comment: We often talk about being children of God. What I want to know is when we’re going to step up and be *adults* of God. Most of us need to grow up spiritually.

  25. i absolutely love this post. when i was a leader in the church i had a young man tell me that he felt the spirit immediately after doing something that he knew was a sin. at that moment he realized that the thing that he had always thought was the spirit was in fact not. this was “life changing”, as you said. he had to rebuild his faith from the ground up.

    i hear a lot of young people (and adults too, now that i think about it) recount how they “felt” like they should take this job or “felt” like they should move to this place. i’m always horrified to think that people are making life decisions based on passing feelings that could just as easily be indigestion!

    i don’t want to sound irreverent. But i really believe we do a terrible job of teaching people how to hear the voice of God in the church. this is a problem that needs attention. Joseph Smith described the spirit as “pure intelligence” flowing into him. That’s the best description i’ve ever heard.

    thanks for the great post!

  26. Yes, thank you for this post! This has been a very difficult subject for me to come to grips with over the last 10+ years, and I found this post refreshing. I’ve always kept similar thoughts (similar to both Dane and commentors to the post) to myself because they always seemed so different that I thought I must’ve been a little *off.

    I echo an amalgam of posts 17, 24, 25.

  27. I can’t find it, but I swear an apostle mentioned a man who would pray for what cans of soup he should buy, or something to that effect. Since I can’t find it, here’s a Dallin H. Oaks quote instead:

    “Closely related to this example is the person who has a strong desire to be led by the Spirit of the Lord but who unwisely extends that desire to the point of wanting to be led in all things. A desire to be led by the Lord is a strength, but it needs to be accompanied by an understanding that our Heavenly Father leaves many decisions for our personal choices. Personal decision making is one of the sources of the growth we are meant to experience in mortality. Persons who try to shift all decision making to the Lord and plead for revelation in every choice will soon find circumstances in which they pray for guidance and don’t receive it. For example, this is likely to occur in those numerous circumstances in which the choices are trivial or either choice is acceptable.

    We should study things out in our minds, using the reasoning powers our Creator has placed within us. Then we should pray for guidance and act upon it if we receive it. If we do not receive guidance, we should act upon our best judgment. Persons who persist in seeking revelatory guidance on subjects on which the Lord has not chosen to direct us may concoct an answer out of their own fantasy or bias, or they may even receive an answer through the medium of false revelation. Revelation from God is a sacred reality, but like other sacred things, it must be cherished and used properly so that a great strength does not become a disabling weakness.”

    From “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall”

  28. Many of us have varying degrees of what is called, in its pathological form, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). We feel anxiety about aspects of our behavior or choices before us that is out of proportion to the true importance of the choice. In the strongest cases it can be disabling. But as I learned about OCD through the experience of people close ot me, I recognized manifestations of lower levels of the same disproportionate anxiety among other people.

    A major treatment for OCD is behavior therapy, which consist to a large extent of refusing to give in to irrational compulsions. The cycle of feeling compulsions and giving in to them tends to reinforce the compulsions, while resisting the compulsions makes them weaker. This process can actually be observed by brain scans using positron emission topography (PET) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

    Harold B. Lee described the voice of the Holy Ghost as “when your heart tells you things your head does not know”. By definition, what we are seeking is information that is not originating in our own minds, but information that is congruent with other things we know to be true and good.

    One of my favorite parts of the Book of Mormon is the discourse in Alma Chapter 32, describing the relationship between the word of God, faith, and testimony. We are presumed to have a basic truth sensor, described elsewhere in the scriptures as the “light of Christ”, which helps us recognize what is good, and to accept the rational premise that teachings which expand our understanding, that help to make sense of our experiences, are good and true. Alma describes the process of learning to recognize what is good and true based on experience, experience that accumulates as we invest our time and abilities in cultivating the good and true in our lives. All along, we are motivated by the hope offered by the promise in the word, that it will grow up in us, in other words transform us, into a fruitful tree that blesses not only ourselves but those in our circle of care.

    Arthur Henry King, the late distinguished scholar of literature who joined the Church and taught at BYU, wrote that the thing that convinced him about the truth of Joseph Smith’s testimony of the First Vision was the utter matter-of-fact way he related the experience. As an expert in literary analysis, he found that Joseph employed no device to induce feelings of awe or worship in the reader of his experience. He saw Joseph as someone who offered his first hand experience, without embellishment.

    Just so, my own experience with the influence of the Holy Ghost is of receiving simple information, without prelude or fanfare. It requires faith for us to be willing to even consider the idea that someone is giving us a thought or sometimes a feeling from outside ourselves. Yet the reality of such communications, and the remarkable and unexpected results they can sometimes bring, are part of our experience, both firsthand and among the circle of our families and friends in the Church.

    It seems to me that evidence of the consistent reality of this source of inspiration is the unity among the members of the Church. Among Christian theologians, there is discussion of the dichotomy between a church that is led and managed according to an organization and rules, versus a church that is led according to the influence of revelation given to its individual members. Most who have discussed this tension see it as one that must be resolved in favor of one or the other. They do not see how a church can have both a strong organization AND strong reliance on individual inspiration. A recent presentation by Richard Bushman spoke to the unique balance achieved by Joseph Smith. The fact that the Church actually works is evidence, to me, that the inspiration is consistent and unified at its source. In other words, that it is objectively real.

  29. In Dallin H. Oaks’ “The Lord’s Way,” he does talk about a person who prayed over which can of vegetable to buy.

  30. This issue also came to light for me with reading scripture. I have probably read the BofM 10-15 times in my life. I have prayed to receive an “answer” at least 100+ times, just like we promised investigators after reading Moroni’s promise. Over the past decades, I have never received what I could feel was an answer that it was “true” with all that that implies regarding a testimony, etc.

    There were times I felt good when reading certain sections in the BofM that resonated with me, which I assumed at one point was the Spirit. However, in the past few years I have read far and wide. I have felt the exact same feelings reading parts in the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, etc. And I have felt more peace and truth reading the writings of Buddha than I ever felt reading the BofM.

    So my question is what to expect as an answer re: the BofM. I do think there is something that resonates in us when we read/hear truth, where ever it may be. I do think that truth is found in the BofM, but it is also in many, many more places. If these “good” feelings are supposed to convince us that the BofM is true, which is the cornerstone of our religion, are they also supposed to convince me to become a Buddhist or a Muslim?

  31. Mike S, I’m glad you mention Moroni’s promise. Can any of the historians among us give some insight into the use of “helping others feel and recognize the Spirit” as the core technique of missionary work? Have church missionaries focused on converting through helping their listeners feel the Spirit since the founding of the church, or is it a more recent phenomenon? Somehow I imagine that early missionaries might have focused more on the reasonableness and comparative merits of the doctrines of the church, but I have no foundation for that belief.

  32. The message of this post is important on one hand, then on the other it is destructive of faith.

    I agree with Dane that we can’t live a “lie” regarding the things of the Spirit. However, I want to add that learning to discern the workings of the Spirit is within our reach. But we need to realize that it is like other “talents”. Take music for example, I enjoy some music, but I am painfully aware that my talent in music is very limited compared to others. If I decided to work with it then I would be able to improve some, but I not interested so my talent in music is plateaued. As sure as I state this then someone will challenge it saying they have tried to do this or that with things of the Spirit and it didn’t work. I don’t disagree, I’m stating a general rule and there certainly will be exceptions.

  33. Mike S–To my knowledge, Buddhists and Muslims do not consider it necessary, or even advisable, to seek some kind of confirming communication from God about their sacred texts. Muslims especially are emphatic about Mohammad being the last prophet (I am not speaking of any minority groups within the Muslim tradition to the contrary). I know that many Christian denominations are so insistent that we should accept the Bible on the basis of reason that they positively denounce the Mormon invitation to ask God for information via revelation, despite what James 1:5 says.

    Thus, I think the Book of Mormon is to a great extent distinctive in inviting its readers to, first, ponder the love of God for his children, from Adam to now, as exemplified in the sermons and stories recounted in that record, and exercise faith in Christ by asking to know whether the record is true. Ultimately the issue is not whether a person gets an objective experience that he or she can perceive as a confirming communication from God, but whether he or she knows the Book of Mormon is what it purports to be, a record created under the direction of Heavenly Father.

    Modern prophets have noted that there is truth in many religious traditions, from the Apocrypha to Islam, and of course in traditional Christianity, despite the loss of what we regard as “plain and precious things” from the Bible because of the overlay of men’s interpretations that obscure those plain truths. So I would not discount a feeling of recognition of truth within the sacred texts of other religions. On the other hand, the Book of Mormon is distinctive in containing a call to action. The promise made by Moroni is explicit that a condition of receiving the knowledge of the truth of the book is asking “with real intent”, that is, with readiness to make one’s life conform to the message of the book.

    On the other hand, if one does not feel confident in having received knowledge about the truth of the Book of Mormon, it does not disqualify one from accepting its truth on the basis of faith, just as most people do in their embrace of other religious faiths. If it is good enough that its promises are desirable, why not embrace it as your faith on that basis, which would be the same basis for embracing any other doctrine or denomination? We all have degrees of faith and knowledge, and the Lord promises us that the blessings he promises us are based on our willingness to trust him, have faith in him, not on how much of the Restored Gospel we feel convicted of as certain and true.

  34. So, Jared, in all seriousness (no snark intended whatsoever), as a general rule, according to your analogy, you concede that there are individuals that might be considered “spiritually tone deaf” — this “tone deafness” being something they are born with (as in the musical sense), rendering it beyond their control. What do you have to say to them?

  35. #33 Raymond

    I absolutely agree that many other religions don’t need a confirmation from God that they are correct. Muslims need to affirm their faith in Allah. Buddhists technically don’t define God – but suggest we should look at the works and see if they are good or not for us. Many other faiths have similar things.

    My issue is more related to my faith. I taught investigators that they would know the BofM was true by how they felt when they read it. The spirit is obviously very hard to define for everyone, but we talked about feelings of peace, about feelings of “truth”, etc. We then explained that if they felt the BofM was “confirmed” through these feelings, then logically JS was a prophet and the Church was true and our message was true and they should be baptized. Perhaps not as A->B->C as that, but that is essentially the point of the whole missionary program as I learned it.

    My issue is more a personal one. If I am supposed to base my faith on the BofM on the feelings I have when I read it, what do I do when I feel the same feelings when I read other Christian writings that contradict some of the teachings we have. Or even when I read non-Christian writings. As mentioned, I have tremendous peace reading Buddhist teachings, for example. The feelings are the same.

    The Spirit obviously cannot confirm contradictory things. It therefore goes back to the title of the post: “Discovering that what I thought was the spirit was not.” Perhaps the feelings I feel when I read the BofM are a confirmation of “Truth” in a more universal sense, just like when I read other faiths’ literature, and not a confirmation of the “truth” of the LDS Church. It’s not very well explained, but that is my dilemma.

  36. #34 Orwell–

    The challenges of the natural man due to our fallen nature is real.

    The Lord has provided prophets (living and dead), in addition to things of the Spirit, to help His followers move through the challenges of mortality. In addition, we have each other–family, loved ones, friends, ward members, church leaders, and etc.

    One scripture comes to mind that can be helpful in understanding this topic:

    13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.
    14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 46:13 – 14)

    This scripture says that some members of the church are required to rely on the testimony of others instead of receiving it from the Holy Ghost. That would certainly require humility.

    Some of the comments above appear to be written by people who frankly admit they struggle with things of the Spirit, yet they are willing to accept this challenge and remain faithful.

    Side note: my personal observation is that these individuals usually have an abundance of other talents.

  37. I am a member of the Church, have a strong testimony that it’s true, and have had a few strong spiritual experiences in my life. Receiving a confirmation that the BOM is true is not one of them. For me, personally, I have come to believe that for the time being the Lord has given me enough signs so as not to compel my belief. Is this cognitive dissonance? Perhaps. But I cannot deny the other experiences I’ve had, and so I go on, satisfied with what I have been given, believing that the other will come in time.

    I’m a big boy, and could walk away any time I want. But I choose to stay. And believe.

  38. The Spirit obviously cannot confirm contradictory things.

    I think one of the common mistakes is to frame everything in terms of a yes / no question when the truth of the matter is often far more subtle than that. In some cases the proper answer depends on the will of the petitioner. It is like “should I do this?” “Well, do you want to?”

  39. Adam, perhaps you’re right. But whatever god that is is a god that I’m done with for now.

    Perhaps? I think it’s pretty plain that God can give us feelings of guilt. Dane, I really like the general premise of this post, but that response really threw me.

    Sometimes we feel guilt for sins, and sometimes we feel guilt for non-sins.

    I’d classify the latter as being dumb, rather than feeling guilt. If we didn’t do anything wrong, then we can’t be guilty, we can just feel bad. I really think it’s critical to be able to tell the difference.

    A few years back when I served in the YW, a Laurel was steadfast and immovable in claiming that goosebumps was a consistent manifestation of the spirit. After some discussion I finally said, “Honey, have you ever gotten out of a shower? Do you think the Spirit is manifesting the truth of personal hygiene?”

    This is such a universally difficult topic. Go to Education Week and check out the classes on personally revelation and identifying promptings. Always packed. Everyone wants the answer key to this one.

    I used to think I had a pretty good feel for spiritual promptings. Until I came to a point in my life where I felt they all but disappeared. The ups and downs of that could be another post all together.

  40. I shudder to remember what I was taught “was” and “wasn’t” the Spirit in Young Womens (“goosebumps” was one of them! good grief!), and it’s certainly led me into all kinds of confusion over decisions that I’m now sure the Spirit had nothing to do with. At one point in preparing to teach devotionals at Young Womens camp, a leader told us if we could just make the girls cry, they would feel the spirit.

    As I grow up, I’m coming to realize that there are a lot of righteous, stalwart grown-ups out there that have no idea where their feelings are coming from. Combine these with rising generations just itching to have Real Spiritual Experiences, and it makes for some very entertaining testimony meetings!

  41. Alison, it may be dumb, but that doesn’t mean it can easily be brushed off. King Benjamin teaches that there are so many sins they cannot be listed. That leaves us without a clear delineation between what is sin and what is not sin. The solution I came up with is that anything that separates me from the Holy Ghost is sin. But how can I know if I am being separated from the Holy Ghost? I figured that feelings of guilt signified separation from the Holy Ghost. That caught me in a circle where sin and guilt were indistinguishable. Now I can see that it is dumb to be stuck in guilt over non-sins, but it wasn’t always that clear to me.

  42. The items in the two categories appear like the manic and depressive phases of bipolar disorder as well.

  43. The more I learn from others about the various ways “things of the Spirit” are experienced by church members the more it seems that these things can be represented by a bell curve.

    Some members learn to discern things of the Spirit with little effort, while other need to work diligently.

    Either way, the scriptures make it clear that the Lord answers prayers.

    My own experience has taught me that the Lord answers prayers in many different ways–not just by “feelings”.

    Robert C–thanks for the link to brother Reynolds speech.

    Orwell–I can’t access the links you provided–for some reason.

  44. “I can’t access the links you provided–for some reason.”

    Perhaps it is not given for you to know.

  45. Alison, it may be dumb, but that doesn’t mean it can easily be brushed off.

    I wouldn’t equate my statement, “I really think it’s critical to be able to tell the difference.” with brushing something off. I think it’s important to recognize the difference between sinning and having something sad or bad happen. But I don’t think it’s really difficult in most cases. IMO people mislabel “guilt” readily.

    There may be more sins than you can count, but I’m guessing that God isn’t going to lower the boom on us for things we’ve never heard of and have no clue about. :) To be clear, you had said that sometimes we feel guilty for sins and sometimes for non-sins. If we’re doing the latter, then we either know something isn’t a sin and are wallowing in “guilt” anyway or we are fabricating “sins” in order to become guilt-ridden. Neither sounds like a reasonable path.

  46. There oughta be some good material for a stand-up comedy routine in here somewhere, about Jews, Catholics, Mormons and guilt.

    Are Muslims big on guilt too? The draconian punishments of Sharia law make me think they are, with all that death penalty and corporal punishment stuff.

    Protestants, not so much. I don’t think Hindus and Buddhists are big on guilt either.

  47. If we’re doing the latter, then we either know something isn’t a sin and are wallowing in “guilt” anyway or we are fabricating “sins” in order to become guilt-ridden.

    We might be talking past each other. I agree that both of the categories you list here exist. What I’m suggesting is that there’s a third category — in addition to those who choose to feel guilty over non-sins, or those who invent new sins for the sake of feeling guilty, there are those who sincerely believe that watching Finding Nemo is going to bring down the eternal wrath of God upon them. This is problematic, and it’s something we promote through poorly teaching how to recognize the Holy Ghost.

  48. Oft times we are guided by the Light of Christ instead of the Holy Ghost.

    See “Light of Christ” by Pres. Boyd K Packer, Ensign, April 2005

    We often confuse the two. Part of the experience of life is learning to recognize which one is speaking. #15 Syphax said it perfectly – that we all hear the Holy Ghost differently. Sometimes it is the still, small voice, and sometimes it is the rush of emotion, including GOOSEBUMPS and tingling.

  49. Glenn Smith: #51,

    I used to try to distinguish between the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost. But I gave up and decided to pay attention to both and try to obey both.

    Here’s why. The Light of Christ, emanating from Christ, communicates the will of Christ. “The Holy Ghost speaks the words of Christ” said Nephi and/or Moroni (I keep forgetting which.) And Christ said (in the NT) that he only said what the Father told him (and did only what he saw the Father do, etc.)

    Therefore, everything that Christ says comes from the Father, and therefore everything that comes through _either_ the Light of Christ _or_ the Holy Ghost comes from the Father. And since neither Christ nor the Holy Ghost make things up on their own, all their words are the _will_ of Heavenly Father towards us, regardless of how delivered or how softly delivered.

    Therefore, they both have the same source, are both “true”, and I think both should be equally obeyed. At least I think we should try to. They are just Christ communicating to us through two different channels.

    In fact, David O. McKay and Boyd K. Packer both said that “the Holy Ghost speaks through the Light of Christ” though I don’t have a reference handy. Those are pretty much the exact words, so you might be able to google the quote.

    (Dane, do I have a long comment in moderation? I left the page after clicking submit, but before it refreshed, so it may have canceled the comment.)

  50. A lot of this comes from the talks we hear about airplanes getting bumped off their course by one tiny degree and ending up hundreds of miles from their destination. Taken in the wrong way, such notions lead to spiritual OCD.

    To believe that God micromanages our lives and will let us stray off course because we don’t follow every thought that pops into our heads denies grace, second chances, third and fourth chances, etc…

    If its really important, there will be multiple chances, or multiple, absolutely unmistakable promptings.

  51. I LOVE this post. I think only recently it has really come to light that people regularly feel guilty for things that are not sins. I was terrible at this before I went on my mission. I felt guilt pretty regularly, thinking I couldn’t go to a temple dedication because I’d had sexual thought the day before or something. I was extremely blessed to have a mission president’s wife who was an excellent psychologist. After dealing with months of insane feelings of guilt for silly things, she suggested I may have OCD. OCD is far more common than we think – ESPECIALLY among missionaries. Not surprising, really, I mean a lot of people go on missions in an attempt to be the best person possible – you might say they’re obssessed with being a good person. As was well-explained earlier, there are varying levels of OCD, mine was more debilitating than normal. But it was a great lesson for me:

    In church, to be on “the safe side”, we are taught that if we feel guilt for something we ought to repent, even if we think we already have. Most people don’t realize how difficult this teaching is for a lot of people, who find themselves feeling consistently guilty for things that are silly or unrealistic and never able to shake those feelings despite repentance. It is incredibly naive to think that things are as simple as “feeling guilt for sins and not feeling guilty if it’s not a sin”. Feelings are very subjective and confusing. A person with a perfection complex, like me, could easily feel guilty for silly things like having to work on Sunday because you’re a nurse, or wanting to dance closer than “BoM distance” from your boyfriend.

    I love this post because I think this subject should be faced far more often in church, but it is never acceptable to say “I felt guilty, but I had to push my guilt aside and move on”. So many people still think blank-and-white on the subject. In the meantime, we have children and sometimes even adults in the congregation who are over-analyzing their every move to make sure it’s in-line with God’s plan for them. To someone who doesn’t struggle with something OCD or anxiety-related, this doesn’t sound so bad, but it really interrupts your peace and your ability to feel the spirit at all. Getting past it is essential to learning to enjoy life and learning to accept your mistakes and see them as part of your existence.

    I am completely on board with the poster here – I have no specific feeling to attribute to the spirit anymore. In fact, most of my “promptings” I still have to ignore and push aside because they are my anxieties and worries talking to me, not God. On occasion, He does have something to say about my life, but most of the time he is letting me lead myself and make my own decisions. I, too, am done with feeling guilt. When I do something wrong, I do not reel “wracked with guilt” like any of these scriptural prophets (of course, I am not murdering people either). I laugh it off, and try not to do it again. Or I do it a couple more times to see what happens and try to discern whether it is right or wrong.

    Thank you for your comments!

  52. Sorry Bookslinger, I don’t see any comments awaiting moderation.

    Jane and sl, thank you both for the insightful responses. You’re comments are right on what I’m talking about here.

  53. Another couple quick thoughts.

    It’s true that God does whisper to us and nudge us. But there is a difference between that and what Dane is talking about. It’s not easy to pinpoint the difference, but just acknowledging that there can be a conflict between the nagging OCD voice and the voice of the Spirit goes a long way in solving the problem.

    When I look at the things I truly value in life, both spiritually and temporally, I cannot think of a SINGLE one that depended on a small, seemingly trivial decision in the past. Everything that I currently value resulted from significant decisions that seemed significant even at the time. I received guidance from God on those decisions and am grateful for it. The things I worried about when I had the kind of problem Dane discusses? None of it’s amounted to jack squat in the long run.

  54. My mission president related to me something that Elder Packer shared at a mission presidents’ seminar. He wanted us to understand that the feelings we get are not the Spirit, but rather our reaction to the Spirit. I found this helpful, as it explains to me why not everyone feels the same when the Spirit speaks to them, and it explains why I feel what I used to think was the Spirit when just watching a movie, listening to pop music, etc.

    He told us that the one thing the Spirit always brings is revelation. I suppose what Joseph Smith spoke of as feeling pure intelligence flowing into you. This is how I felt when I gained my testimony of the BoM and the restoration, and it was accompanied by powerful emotional feelings. However, I now recognise that those feelings in isolation are not the Spirit, and can easily be brought about by things that are not of God.

  55. Where to start this much I do know that God lives and loves me. Sorry to say it’s just a feeling. I understand sin as “a missed mark” shoot the arrow miss the bullseye make an ajustment and try again. I understand the OCD have it my self. It in many cases is a good thing for me and sometimes it just about drives me crazy not the Lords fault but something I get to work with any way. Feeling the holy ghost has always been what I think of as hard for me but when I have followed it has worked out the right way. so many times I have not followed and if is a bad thing or not I don’t know. All I know is that the Lord knows the begining from the end and how it all works out for the good. I do believe the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints is true. I still have to brush the dirt off me every day and try again but I like the “fight”

  56. Thanks so much, Dane. This really hits home for me. I used to be a “neurotic Mormon” too in my youth, thinking that God was micromanaging my life, to the point that I was second guessing everything. I can’t begin to describe how messed up I was.

    I have come a long way since then. I have come to believe that it is wrong to seek to be told what to do by God–that it creates eternal dependents and stunts our spiritual growth. I believe God expects us to grow up and think for ourselves.

    I have the passionate desire to help my kids avoid “Neurotic Mormon Syndrome”. I have come to embrace free agency and the word of God as a guide to life, a rule to measure by that I am free to interpret according to *my* God-given conscience. I no longer feel like someone is looking over my shoulder at every tiny decision I make, like hot breath on my back, but that God is there, patiently and lovingly waiting for me to learn what I need to learn over the long haul.

    Sometimes we need the Spirit to intervene and it does. Asking for guidance and blessings is always good. But I believe expecting to be told what to do is wrong. Sometimes the spirit does tell us what to do, but I don’t think that is something we should covet, but rather something that happens when it is supposed to happen.

  57. very awesome, thank you everyone for your discussions and experiences, wisdom, knowledge. I am very grateful to have received more understanding, and knowledge from others sharing there experiences.
    I know the church is true, it administers the Gospel, we are here to learn, to overcome, I know that it is only by continual seeking, we find out the truth of how to act, what to do. I understand that everyday we wake up, we arn’t ‘told’ what to do for that day, we are taught the gospel, which we already know but must re-learn constantly, to keep the commandments and each day we individually work to interpret it according to our experiences upon us. Having a physical partial hearing loss I have learnt that this physical condition created a habit of isolation which was extending over my spiritual hearing. In seeking to hear and listen more spiritually, I am easily able to define what is and isn’t God’s will for me. And should I make the wrong pathway, in seeking earnestly to have done the right thing, I am guided to the right way, but only on my seeking. In everyday matters of trivial (are they trivial?) experiences, we are taught to keep the commandments and to live righteously. Its not as thought the commandments get changed everyday, it’s about adapting our lives to follow them. I recently read Luke 10:24-37 the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer asked the Lord of the way to act “Master what shall I do to inherit eternal life” and when asked by the Lord, the lawyer answered right. In v29 the Lawyer, knowing what to do, justified himself by asking “And who is my neighbour”
    Rationalisation and justifying does open the door for these feelings of guilt, because as the lawyer already knew, the process was being broken down, to create room for deviation from the word. In making everyday decisions, having principles as your reason for your decision making, remove guilt, and make decision making easy, in the fact that decisions are not based on emotions which change daily if not hourly! I deal with this constantly, being a single parent, I have two callings at church, am still YSA, and work as well as study. After a week of doing Branch activities, teaching primary, going between studies, work and raising a child, on a Sunday evening there are usually YSA firesides to attend. I go as I can and other times I don’t go which seems like I am not supporting or participating in the program, but can make decisions based on my principles of what is best for me. Is my daughter pushed? and just needs to be home, my choice is to do that and not feel that I have to go. Other times I just want to go and can when all other things are in good order. The Lords knows us individually and knows our hearts and our works.
    I have a personal virtue of honoring what I say I would do, and don’t say I will do something unless I mean it. This means that I can do things and follow through with them because it was already decided and I don’t have to determine or re-decide based on my emotions. This can be applied to experiences with temptation. When I struggle to honor those commitments I ask God for strength and guidance. Spiritual experiences can be often, daily, we are spiritual beings.. first before we were physical, whether feelings are by the Light of Christ or the Holy Ghost, we can receive them as power and guidance in life daily. I will always remember Sister Sybrowski who said in a visit to the Branch that we wouldn’t go a day without eating food, showering, resting, physical necessities to function, we shouldn’t go without studying the scriptures daily and having spiritual experiences daily. I know this happens by putting God first and recognising him in all things.
    In knowing God, I love learning how he too Rests, listens to music (the angels sang to him)created, watched over,(parents) and delights in things. God is great!

  58. “Adam, perhaps you’re right. But whatever god that is is a god that I’m done with for now”

    You are of course free to imply that my spiritual impressions are from some other “god,” maybe Zeus or Satan or whomever. Since you have no basis for saying this at all, maybe Zeus or Satan or whoever will make you feel guilty about it, or compel you to be just a tad more charitable in conversation in the future. We can but hope.

  59. I apologize — I should have worded that differently. I did not mean to imply anything about the source of your impressions, only that I had made a determination about the source of some of my impressions. Feelings are hard to talk about, and I don’t mean to equate my feelings (or their sources) with yours.

  60. Dane,
    I think this post is very important for many people. It’s kind of like an OCD conception of the Spirit that many people need to overcome. One of the best talks on this is “Agency or Inspiration: Which?” given by Elder McConkie at BYU. In that talk he frankly says that he never prayed about who to marry and that God was fine with him making the decision by himself. He says that maybe he should have done “some counseling with the Lord” but the point is that God wants us to learn to think for ourselves. Reading this talk puts things like “what shirt to wear” in major perspective. Yes, people should practice good fashion sense, but having once learned what colors match, the spirit likely won’t help in that area anymore. I have noticed this at work. I don’t pray before every meeting with an executive because I am not nervous anymore and have experience at it…but I keep a prayerful spirit about me and pray formally at set intervals.

    As for guilt: I side with Adam and Alison. The absence of the Spirit in varying degrees equates with guilt. Now if someone is feeling guilty for unimportant things—like watching a PG movie (think “Home Alone”, a Movie President Monson quoted from in Conference) then they need to get over it. If this sort of thinking impairs their ability to be happy or hold a job then it might be an obsession that requires counseling. But if people take the “all guilt is bad” thing to far then they are in denial. I think our generation would do well to resurrect guilt as a motivating force in life.

    Elder McConkie’s address:

  61. …note that this month’s ensign channels the “Agency or Inspiration: Which?” theme with many articles about the marriage decision…but it doesn’t reference Elder McConkie at all…that I noticed anyway.

  62. Allisan Looman:

    Good points. I have long been suspicious of equating emotions with the spirit but have recently backed off…just a bit. This is because some have overreacted I think and emotions are God given (think “body, parts or passions”) and can *accompany* the spirit. But yes, they are not identical and the emotions of a tent revival or rock concert will not likely accompany the Spirit.

  63. I think both the author of the post and I would agree that there is a place for guilt. Maybe I am interpreting wrong, but at least for me, I have to ignore guilt altogether for a while until I understand the difference. I just don’t have the ability yet to make a distinction like that on gray areas like Rated R movies or coffee-flavored ice cream. I have to assume they are not a big deal and move on. I think, though, that I do understand when I’ve done something wrong. But it doesn’t rack me with guilt and make me feel like a terrible person. Now when I realize I’ve done something wrong, it’s not a bad feeling, just an informative feeling. “oh, I guess I shouldn’t do that again.” If I miss a few weeks of church I start to feel the longing for the Spirit. But it’s not this “I’m so terrible, how could I have fallen off the path, maybe this is the first step towards apostasy” kind of thing. The slippery slope analogy is the worst one ever taught. That’s another story, but to summarize, since everyone sins, everyone’s technically on the slippery slope so I guess we’re all going to apostatize?

    Anyways, that’s my opinion on the matter. That is “a god I’m done with for now” refers to the mean, chastising God that ran our lives for so long and has morphed into a kind, understanding God, who probably laughs when we want to taste our friend’s beer for the first time or try to ask God if it’s okay to french kiss before marriage. The God I believe in now has a much lighter take on life and sees it as a learning experience – to BE EXPERIENCED – rather than a laundry list of mistakes we’ve made and will never really be able to make up for.

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