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I don't often "feel" the Spirit. And that's OK

05 May 2015

During my teen years, I believed I had a spiritual disability. 

I loved Youth Conference and EFY. I loved the learning. The serving. The food. The dances. But the pinnacle of those experiences was always the final testimony meeting. It was a moment for us youth to share our faith and prepare to return home to the world. But during those testimony meetings, I would turn around and notice a very disturbing trend. Every single person in the room seemed to be crying... except me.

I always felt a bit self-conscious about that, like maybe the people next to me (who were so obviously feeling the Spirit) were perhaps wondering to themselves, "Wow, what's wrong with that guy? Where are his tears? Doesn't he get it? Has he just missed this whole spiritual experience?" 

Like I said, it was awkward. I think one time, I may have even faked it a little. My whole youth I wondered why everyone else was misting up, and why I wasn't. Don't get me wrong-- it's not like I didn't feel anything at all-- I was just felt less weepy than everyone else. I wondered if maybe there was part of me that just wasn't able to feel the Spirit like I should have-- my own spiritual disability.

As the years passed and I studied the Gospel more, I came to learn that there's actually nothing wrong with me. But there is something very wrong with the expectations that I grew up with about how the Spirit speaks.

Here's where I think the problem lies. In our Sunday School lessons on personal revelation, we often quote D&C 8:2, which states that the Holy Ghost speaks to us "in [our] mind and in [our] heart." So far so good. 

But then we share examples from our lives, like when we first felt in our heart that the Book of Mormon is true. Or when we felt to check on our child at that crucial moment. Or how we feel during a testimony meeting or Scripture study. 

Always about feelings. Rarely about about thoughts.

I'm not usually an emotional guy (OK, my wife will tell you that's the understatement of the century). I do feel the Spirit on occasion, and do have an emotional connection with the Gospel, but that emotional aspect is only a tiny part of what has built my testimony. I received my witness of the truth not so much because of any feeling the Holy Ghost placed in my heart, so much as the knowledge and understanding that has grown in my mind over the course of years of study and pondering. 

I guess in that sense, I relate more to the revelatory process as described by Joseph Smith: "pure intelligence flowing into you, ...sudden strokes of ideas, ...presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, ...by learning ...and understanding." So yes, my testimony can feel warm and fuzzy at times, but what's more important (to me) is that it also makes sense.

Elder Oaks gave a great talk about how the Lord uses both the Priesthood line and a personal line of communication to give us revelation. He taught that both lines of revelation are essential, and how focusing too heavily on one or the other can easily cause us to go astray. Each line, individually and apart, is by itself insufficient.

In like manner, I believe and know that God utilizes on both our emotional and intellectual faculties to build our testimony and strengthen our conversion. So I worry that when we focus so heavily on the emotional aspect of inspiration as we teach, we may unintentionally be cheating God out of that other avenue of revelation and leading our students to get confused between inspiration and emotion. 

Nowhere was that more evident for me than in the mission field. 

At after the beginning of our first transfer together, one of my missionary companions told me about a traumatic life event from his childhood. He did so in a very matter-of-fact way, without fanfare, as if talking about how he used to play basketball.

Later, he started to tell the story to members after dinner appointments. And he really hammed it up. He would put a slight choke in his voice, blink as if holding back tears, and act nervous and sensitive about sharing such a personal detail of his life. In short, he milked that story for all it was worth.

When I asked him why he told that story, his response took me back. "Members of the Church can't tell the difference between tears and the Spirit," he said. "When I tell my story, they feel privileged that I've shared something so personal with them, they cry, and they feel an emotional connection with me. That makes them trust us, and they are more willing to give us referrals. In the end, it doesn't matter whether it's the Spirit or not."

I hope that disgusts everyone as much as it disgusts me. 

Pres. Howard W. Hunter warned against this kind of emotional demagoguery:

Let me offer a word of caution. … I think if we are not careful … , we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself

By trying so hard to elicit an emotional response, we're effectively trying to trick those we teach and get their signals crossed. And getting those signals crossed makes us vulnerable to promptings from the wrong source. We may be just trying to make our lesson more interesting or poignant, but we're utilizing one of Satan's tactics. A lot of bad decisions are emotional-- the result of tear-jerking anecdotes, the heat of the moment, and knee-jerk responses to supposed injustices. 

That's why we need to be careful not to act solely on emotion (or thought). Unlike the Spirit, which conveys truth to our soul though both thought and emotion, Satan can usually only make his arguments persuasive using one or the other-- not both. Either his arguments will feel good but contradict knowledge we have already obtained, or else it will make sense in our heads but be devoid of the warmth of God's approval in our souls. His arguments will always at least one of those tests, and we must use both tests to discern them.

Please note that I am pointing out what I believe to be a flaw in our teaching-- not a flaw in our own ability to receive and act on revelation. Quite the opposite, actually. Elder Bednar taught that often we receive impressions of the mind and act on them all the time... and usually we don't even know when it's happening:

We as members of the Church tend to emphasize marvelous and dramatic spiritual manifestations so much that we may fail to appreciate and may even overlook the customary pattern by which the Holy Ghost accomplishes His work... we many times receive [and act on] revelation without recognizing precisely how or when we are receiving revelation (from The Spirit of Revelation).

I think it was John Bytheway who pointed out that when such promptings enter our thoughts, they usually don't start with the words "Here's some revelation," but rather take the first-person form of "I should..." 

For example, while listening to a Sacrament Meeting talk, we may think, "I should be more earnest in my prayers" or "I should show more kindness to that one co-worker" or "I need to talk to my kid about..."  When these thoughts enter our minds, we may think it is just our mind reacting to a message we heard, but often it is the Spirit of the Lord, pressing "just firmly enough for us to pay heed." Like the Lamanites at the time or their conversion, we are receiving and acting upon the influence of the Holy Ghost and we "[know] it not" (3 Ne. 9:20). 

Basically, revelation through thought becomes such a familiar, commonplace, everyday occurrence that we don't even realize when we are already receiving it and acting upon it.

And I guess as far as spiritual disabilities go, I think that's not too bad.

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