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Holy Ghost/Burning in the bosom
The "burning in the bosom" in Mormonism as a method of determining truth
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Is a "burning in the bosom" simply a subjective, emotion-based, unreliable way to practice self-deception?
- Dallin H. Oaks (1997): "Surely, the word “burning” in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works."
- Question: Why do critics of Mormonism who belong to other religions discount spiritual experiences?
- Question: Can a person "feel the spirit" while watching movies?
- Dr. Wendy Ulrich (2005): "How do the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when someone speaks in a testimony meeting differ from the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when the 4:00 parade begins at Disneyland?"
- Question: Can someone feel the spirit when listening to stories of apostasy?
- "Recognizing the Voice of the Spirit" (Podcast): "How can I come to know that spiritual experience is not just a product of chemical processes in the brain?"
- Question: Will our manifestation of truth from the Holy Ghost be a "spectacular" witness?
- Question: Why might someone not be able to see their spiritual impressions come to successful, obvious, and/or beautiful fruition?
- Question: Can spiritual experiences be simply willed to reality?
- Question: Can one simply decide when one feels and doesn't feel the Spirit?
Question: Is a "burning in the bosom" simply a subjective, emotion-based, unreliable way to practice self-deception?
It is a fundamental misunderstanding or misstatement to say that the Latter-day Saint revelatory experience is exclusively or primarily “emotional”
It is claimed by some that the Latter-day Saint appeal to "revelation" or a "burning in the bosom" is subjective, emotion-based, and thus ineffective, unreliable and susceptible to self-deception.
It is a fundamental misunderstanding or misstatement to say that the LDS revelatory experience is exclusively or primarily “emotional.” The united witness of mind and heart is key in LDS doctrine. Even the body is involved in many instances, hence the use of language exactly like “burning in the bosom.” The LDS concept of human experience is not one where we are carved up into separate, rigid compartments labeled emotional, intellectual, and physical. The LDS approach to human experience is holistic and involves all of our faculties operating simultaneously and inextricably. According to LDS scripture, “the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” (D&C 88:15) We are greater than the mere sum of our inner and outer parts. Ordinarily, it’s not possible, nor is it desirable, to reject and shut down any one of our faculties . All of them combine to provide useful and valid ways of coming to know ourselves, the world, and God. All are involved in true spiritual experience.
A Latter-day Saint “spiritual” experience has intellectual content as well as emotional elements of peace or joy
Accordingly, a Latter-day Saint “spiritual” experience has intellectual content as well as physical phenomena which can include elements of peace or joy. In the early days of the Church, Oliver Cowdery received the following revelation through Joseph Smith:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God? (D&C 6:22–23).
Notice the information is spoken to the “mind,” and the feeling of peace accompanies the intellectual gift. Further, the solution for later doubts or concerns is not reliance on “a feeling” alone but an admonition to recall specific information communicated earlier.
This matches the revelatory pattern later explained to Oliver Cowdery when he attempted to participate in the translation process of the Book of Mormon:
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. 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. 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… (D&C 9:7–9).
Again, the united witness of intellect and heart are essential. If either does not agree, then revelation has not yet confirmed the matter under consideration. Anyone who relies exclusively on any one faculty – either feeling or reasoning or physical sensation – does not properly understand the LDS approach to spiritual witness.
Talk of “feelings” does not mean simply experiencing an “emotion”
To be sure, many Church members will talk about how they “felt” when they prayed or had other experiences with God. However, it is to fundamentally misunderstand these experiences to assume (as critics often do) that talk of “feeling” means simply—or only, or primarily— experiencing an “emotion.” What's lacking from these descriptions is vocabulary. The problem with them is more semantic than it is substantial. The LDS member is stymied, in a sense, because there is no good, available word for what happens during a spiritual experience. These experiences are ineffable. By definition, they defy description. Since few of us have the poetic and metaphorical powers of prophets like Isaiah and John, we are left to try our best to convey what we've experienced in words laden with secular connotations which critics can misinterpret if they so choose.
LDS scholar,Hugh Nibley, hazarded a guess at what this process of willful misinterpretation might look like:
He cannot conceive how anyone could possibly acquire knowledge by any method other than his. He cannot believe that any man has experienced anything which he has not experienced. . . . ‘I have never seen a vision,' says the [skeptic], ‘therefore, Joseph Smith never had one. I have seen dreams [or had emotionally moving experiences], therefore, I will allow him that.'”
Early Christians experienced similar feelings to a "burning in the bosom"
Justin Martyr wrote in his book Dialogue with Trypho, of his conversion that he was a philosopher until he met an old man who introduced him to the Hebrew Prophets when “a flame enkindled his heart” and he found “this philosophy (Christianity) alone to be sure and profitable.” 
The Shepard of Hermas, which was once considered scripture, reads “There are two angels with a man-one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity...The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When he ascends into your heart, he speaks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and every other righteous deed and glorious virtue. When all of these things come into your heart, know that the angel of righteousness is with you” 
Dallin H. Oaks (1997): "Surely, the word “burning” in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works"
Dallin H. Oaks:
What does a “burning in the bosom” mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word “burning” in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works.
Question: Why do critics of Mormonism who belong to other religions discount spiritual experiences?
Sectarian Critics and the Biblical Roots of Burning Feelings
Sectarian critics also belittle appeals to spiritual experiences, comparing them to "warm fuzzies," or merely something "felt by simply watching a Hollywood movie." However, it is strange that sectarian critics fault appeals to a "burning in the bosom" within the LDS community when the roots of the idiom are found in the Bible itself.
Following Jesus' resurrection, He walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize Jesus, but listened to Him as "he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27).
After breaking bread with them, Jesus was revealed to the disciples, and vanished from their sight.
Interestingly, they did not say to each other, "We should have known it was Jesus because of his scriptural teaching." Rather, their explanations went beyond their intellectual faculties. They said:
Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?(Luke 24:32)
Likewise, a reference to a "burning" in the heart can be found in Psalms 39:3:
My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue. Psalms 39:3
The Lord's counsel to Oliver Cowdery makes perfect sense in this context:
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. D&C 9:8
It seems unlikely that sectarian critics who generally work to uphold the Bible to the best of their understandings would dismiss Jesus' disciples' witness because it was described in words with an LDS ring to them such as “burn” and “heart.” Surely sectarians wouldn’t argue the disciples in Luke 24 must have been emotionally manipulated or that they were experiencing some kind of social effervescence simply because they referred to their feelings when speaking to each other about being in the presence of a holy being. The disciples in Luke 24 were not new to the gospel. They knew what it felt like to experience Christ and they recognized the feeling even when they weren’t expecting it. Human nature remains the same in contemporary times and it stands to reason that even now people experienced in spiritual witnesses can know the difference between spiritual sensations and the emotional rush of a Hollywood film.
Ultimately, as the Bible instructs us, we trust in the Lord to reveal the truth:
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
Question: Can a person "feel the spirit" while watching movies?
The Spirit testifies of all true principles, regardless of the source
Why would I "feel the spirit" when watching fictional movies? Some of these movies are even violent and R-rated, such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List.
The Spirit testifies of all truth. The Spirit can testify of true principles taught or portrayed in fiction as well as in real life such as the importance of sacrifice, the importance of family, or of humility. For example, why would one feel so compelled by the story of Les Miserables? After all, the movie portrays prostitutes, thieves, and blasphemers. However, the message is of the importance of mercy over justice, of self-sacrifice, and of forgiveness. Why wouldn't the Holy Ghost tell us these are true principles? The same can be said of many movies, including animated films such as The Lion King.
The movies Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List are very accurate and profound dramas that depict certain important historical events: In this case, the D-day invasion and the Holocaust. They are, out of necessity, R-rated and violent movies, nevertheless they are still deeply moving and, at their most beautiful moments, can move our hearts and minds to God as they teach simple but profound truths. We are moved by these portrayals because we empathize with the sacrifice and suffering of those depicted. Just because we seek "confirmation of the spirit" in religious matters in order to receive confirmation of their truthfulness does not require us to be "dead in feeling" to the rest of life.
Simply receiving a warm feeling about a movie or other fictional work is not enough to call it revelation or a confirmation of the spirit
Latter-day Saints understand that a testimony of the Gospel is not based on feel-good movies. Latter-day Saints base their testimony on a dynamic influence of the Holy Ghost as sought for by revelation. This revelatory experience that is sought out comes from study and prayer (D&C 9:7-9) through the use of all our faculties (D&C 88:15; Alma 32:27).
This dynamic influence is contrasted with a more passive influence, where one feels the Spirit (usually in the form of peace) while in the presence of good things. This is how the vast majority of Latter-day Saints view (or would view) feelings towards movies. We are to seek after all virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy things (Articles of Faith 1:13) because all good things come from God (Moroni 7:12) and they can inspire us to serve him (Moroni 7:13). We may also simply be feeling the Spirit that is promised to always be with us as we live up to our baptismal covenants (Moroni 4:3; 5:2). That doesn't mean, however, that we have received some sort of dynamic, "revelatory witness of the truthfulness" of these works. Since our bodies and spirits are connected (D&C 88:15), it is easy to see why a warm feeling or a heart murmur may be over-interpreted as coming from a spiritual stimulus. Moroni tells us that we have the ability to judge that which is of God and that which is not of God (Moroni 7:14; See also D&C 8:2). The key to discernment is simply to pay close attention to both our mind and heart (D&C 8:2) and "prove all things and hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thess 5:21; See also JS-Matthew 1:37; Moroni 7:20-25).
Dr. Wendy Ulrich (2005): "How do the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when someone speaks in a testimony meeting differ from the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when the 4:00 parade begins at Disneyland?"
Dr. Wendy Ulrich (a licensed psychologist with over 25 years of experience):
People from many religious traditions have “spiritual” experiences–feelings, insights, premonitions, and encounters which they are left to their own conclusions to decipher. It is not unusual for people to conclude from such experiences that God is their God, that He is nearby, or that something associated with that experience is God’s will. Often in the Church we encourage people to look for such feelings and experiences as evidence of God’s hand, or of the truthfulness of the Church’s message. Yet people from many religious backgrounds can have such experiences. How do the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when someone speaks in a testimony meeting differ from the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when the 4:00 parade begins at Disneyland? Critics may conclude that there is no real difference, that feelings are not trustworthy or related to the spirit, and that Church members are being misled by missionaries who teach them that such experiences are the Holy Ghost testifying to them of truth. I have seen this argument used to discredit “spiritual” experiences as nothing more than subjectively produced emotions with no supernatural significance. In many cases I might agree. Because I feel certain emotions in response to a film–even a Church film–may say more about the credibility of the actors’ performance or the director’s talent than the presence of God or the historical accuracy of the message, for example. —(Click here to continue)
Question: Can someone feel the spirit when listening to stories of apostasy?
The Spirit only testifies of things that come from God, and should not be confused with emotion
One critic of the Church, who believes that the "spirit" is simply an emotional manifestation, poses the question: "Why did I feel the Spirit as I listened to the stories of apostates sharing how they discovered for themselves that Mormonism is not true?" 
The Spirit does not confirm apostasy. This is simply an attempt to diminish the experience of those who have truly had the Spirit testify of Christ.
A more accurate way to phrase this would be: "Why did I feel good as I listened to the stories of apostates sharing how they discovered for themselves that Mormonism is not true?" After all, ex-Mormons have already concluded that the "Spirit" is unreliable and inconsistent. The likely answer, of course, is that the stories that the ex-Mormon is hearing support for the conclusion that they have already formed.
Moroni tells us that we have the ability to discern what comes from God and what doesn't even after receiving certain impressions (Moroni 7:14; See also D&C 8:2). Let's look at alternative interpretations of the experience:
- The experience may be one of feeling the love of Christ for the members. Isn't such possible? Feeling the love of God for people who have gone through a loss of faith 2 Ne. 26:30? Such is possible and even desirable. The only objection then to the author of this criticism would be the deliberate reinterpretation and use of that experience to hurt member testimonies and cause confusion.
- There may not have been a true spiritual experience "confirming truth". Since we believe that the body and spirit are intricately connected (D&C 88:15) it is not surprising that a thought, warm feeling or heart tremor can be over-interpreted as coming from a spiritual stimulus. This is what the scriptures might call having "foolish imaginations of the heart" (Hel. 16:22; 3 Ne. 2:2; Moses 8:22).
- Concerning conflating emotion and thoughts with the spirit, President Howard W. Hunter said:
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.
- There may have been no spiritual impression or anything resembling it at all and this may be an intentional lie to try and hurt member's testimonies. This might be an example of "perverting" the Gospel (Alma 30:60).
- The experience may be caused by the devil, see for example (Alma 30:53). Anything that entices us to worship him or to do evil is of him (Moroni 7:17)
- The experience may have been caused by false spirits. D&C 50 was revealed for discerning spirits with D&C 50: 31-33 being the way to (following the counsel given in 1 John 4:1-2) test the spirits (See also D&C 52:15-19)
- Consider what Joseph Smith told Brigham Young:
Tell the brethren to be humble and faithful and be sure to keep the Spirit of the Lord, that it will lead them aright. Be careful and not turn away the still, small voice; it will teach them what to do and where to go; it will yield the fruits of the kingdom. Tell the brethren to keep their heart open to conviction, so that when the Holy Ghost comes to them their hearts will be ready to receive it. They can tell the Spirit of the Lord from all other spirits—it will whisper peace and joy to their souls; it will take malice, hatred, strife and all evil from their hearts, and their whole desire will be to do good.
"Recognizing the Voice of the Spirit" (Podcast): "How can I come to know that spiritual experience is not just a product of chemical processes in the brain?"
"FAIR Questions 2: Recognizing the Voice of the Spirit":
How do I find a way to not only discern the Spirit from emotion, but how can I become convinced that the Spirit is actually real? How can I come to know that spiritual experience is not just a product of chemical processes in the brain? I mean, I’ve prayed about the truth of the Book of Mormon and the gospel and I have gotten answers to my prayers, but how can I come to know whether or not this is from God, and not just either a part of my subconscious or a delusion. —(Click here to continue)
Question: Will our manifestation of truth from the Holy Ghost be a "spectacular" witness?
Why should members expect to receive a spectacular revelation? Even if one saw an angel, one would be susceptible to later concluding that it was an illusion or mistake
Once critical website claims: " Sounds like if you don't get any real answer from the Holy Ghost that you should just keep on following the church and do everything you're suppose to do such as paying 10% of all your income to an organization that you do not know is true or not, and maybe you will slowly gain one and that may take many years or even a lifetime. It is suspicious when the leaders tell their members that the way to gain a testimony is to follow the leaders and some time in the future you may get a testimony but don't expect anything spectacular." 
As 1 Kings 19:11-12 says:
"And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice"
Preach My Gospel: How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?
Why should members expect to receive a spectacular revelation? Even if one saw an angel, one would be susceptible to later concluding that it was an illusion or mistake.
True spiritual conversion is a process
However, true spiritual conversion is a process, Alma 32:33 states:
"And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good"
Critics ignore that if members experience something really spectacular, then faith wouldn't be necessary, just like the brother of Jared didn't have faith following his miraculous visionary experiences described in Ether 3:19-20:
"And because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil; and he saw the finger of Jesus, which, when he saw, he fell with fear; for he knew that it was the finger of the Lord; and he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting. Wherefore, having this perfect knowledge of God, he could not be kept from within the veil; therefore he saw Jesus; and he did minister unto him"
The gospel is intended to promote faith and personal growth--receiving really spectacular experiences is like skipping steps.
"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)
Having a impressive experience is something unusual and special, and should not be shared frequently, unless the Spirit dictates.
Preach My Gospel states:
"Revelation and spiritual experiences are sacred. They should be kept private and discussed only inappropriate situations." :99
President Boyd K. Packer said:
“I have learned that strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently. And when they do, they are generally for our own edification, instruction, or correction. Unless we are called by proper authority to do so, they do not position us to counsel or to correct others.
“I have come to believe also that it is not wise to continually talk of unusual spiritual experiences. They are to be guarded with care and shared only when the Spirit itself prompts you to use them to the blessing of others."
Foundation of testimony
President Ezra Taft Benson observed:
“Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try to disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priesthood keys, and revelation, and the restored Church. But in like manner, if the Book of Mormon be true—and millions have now testified that they have the witness of the Spirit that it is indeed true—then one must accept the claims of the Restoration and all that accompanies it.”
Preach My Gospel continues:
For a detailed response, see: Moroni's promise in the Book of Mormon
Question: How can you know if an answer to prayer, a personal revelation, is true?
Understand how the spirit works and seek something unique to you and recognizable.
Some people have wondered how they can truly know that they are feeling the spirit and that their personal revelation and testimony really is born of a unique interaction with God through his Spirit. Since this applies to so many of the decisions we make and the lifestyle we live it is a good and normal question. The first thing that we should do with regard to all revelation is to understand how the Spirit works by reading the scriptures and getting an idea as to how the spirit has worked with others. We should compare our feelings to the pneumatology and principles of living taught by the scriptures and by modern-day prophets and apostles (for a fuller treatment of pneumatology, see Oscar McConkie’s The Holy Ghost: A Study of the Holy Ghost, According to the Standard Works of the Church). It stands to reason that if we want to be led by Christ’s spirit and follow him, then we will try and measure our lives against what he has revealed through his servants so that we aren’t deceived (JS Matthew 1:37). This means we interrogate and weigh the words of the standard works (since they are our standard of truth) and we take into consideration what has been taught by the living prophets and apostles in trying to make good decisions and bring ourselves in tune with the spirit’s whisperings. Through the scriptures, Christ has given us important indicators for recognizing the Spirit (for one example, see D&C 11:12, 13).
As taught in Preach My Gospel:
As you pray for inspiration, you should also confirm your feelings. For example, compare your decisions with the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets. Be certain that the feelings are consistent with the assignment you have; for example, you will not receive revelation to tell a local bishop how he should perform in his calling. Discuss your decisions and conclusions with your companion, your district leader, or your mission president when appropriate.President Howard W. Hunter offered this counsel: “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” (The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, 184). The Spirit of the Lord always edifies.
Once we recognize how the Spirit may work, the best thing we can do is to seek a unique interaction with it—something that we can know is apart from normal thoughts and emotions—and trust in that to lead us to do good.
In order to continue to know with greater assurance that something is true, we should continue to endure in faith. We’re promised blessings for doing so.
Regarding the foundational witness for our testimony, Alma has taught us in the Book of Mormon that even after we have tasted of the fruit of faith, that we should continue to try and water the seed so that it will continue to grow. As it grows more and more, the greater assurance we can have that it is good and true (See Alma 32; D&C 50:24). This is how we should treat our own witness. The more we continue in light, we are promised that the light will grow and that as we believe, the signs will follow us (See D&C 63:9).
Regarding specifically impressions to do something, how can you know if an answer is true?
Personal revelation is a principle we grow into. If you want to know how to receive it and follow it, then you must work at it by trial and error sometimes. If you feel the promptings of the spirit to do something, then do it, and see what happens. We can do a lot to know if something truly comes from the spirit (see above for that), but debating an impression’s validity in a sort of theoretical way, won't ever provide you with an answer.
Regarding its manifestation in our mind, Joseph Smith talks of "pure intelligence" flowing into you:
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.
However, as Boyd K. Packer points out, revelation does not "flow without effort" on the part of the person desiring it.
To one who thought that revelation would flow without effort, the Lord said:
“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.
“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.” 
This burning in the bosom is not purely a physical sensation. It is more like a warm light shining within your being.
Describing the promptings from the Holy Ghost to one who has not had them is very difficult. Such promptings are personal and strictly private!
Ultimately, it is a choice to believe in the reality of the spirit, understand the epistemology, work to be worthy to feel the spirit’s influences, and follow those influences courageously
Lehi gives his children this counsel at his death, teaching us an important principle.
27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.28 And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit
It’s natural to feel reticent at times to believe in the Spirit—if it is real and actually working in our lives. It is ultimately our choice to believe in it and follow its influence to eternal life.
Personal revelation can differ between two people
Latter-day Saints don't believe that differences in the phenomena experiences while feeling the spirit should always be the same. What it means is that 1) We are all working at understanding and following the spirit and 2) that we are all receiving personal answers to our prayers from a loving Heavenly Father, and others are receiving personal answers to theirs. Personal revelation is beautiful precisely because these differences can exist. It deepens our understanding and love of the fact that we are all unique children of our Heavenly Father.
Some may have “spectacular” experiences while others only hear a still small voice.
Boyd K. Packer:
We do not seek for spectacular experiences. President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of the many who "have no ear for spiritual messages … when they come in common dress. … Expecting the spectacular, one may not be fully alerted to the constant flow of revealed communication."
Why does it differ in nature sometimes? One reason may be that perhaps the spirit witnesses to us in a way we can understand. It speaks to us “in our own language” so that we can come to understanding (D&C 1:24). For the intellectual, the spirit may manifest itself more often as clear thoughts and bring inspiration to the mind. For the more emotionally oriented, feelings of comfort, peace, and the phenomenon described in the scriptures.
Question: Why might someone not be able to see their spiritual impressions come to successful, obvious, and/or beautiful fruition?
Introduction to Question
It is sometimes wondered how one might respond to a situation in which an impression to do or believe something doesn’t come to fruition—whether that be in an immediate, obvious, or good way.
This article will offer a number of things to consider when in this type of a situation. They are not things we have to constantly be worrying about when trying to receive inspiration nor are they set possibilities. These are simply all the logical possibilities as the author sees them that you can consider when confronted with this type of a situation. One is free to reject or embrace these possibilities as they feel best fits their circumstances and/or they feel comfortable with.
Response to Question
1. Consider that the impression is brought to fruition without you immediately recognizing the benefit
The first thing we can always consider is that the impression has brought fruit but that it won’t be immediately obvious to us how those experiences benefit us or the life of someone else right now or in the future.
2. The Lord may have wanted to see if you'd merely follow through with the revelation
Many faithful members have reconciled such situations by seeing that the Lord may have simply wanted them to follow the impression so that he knows that you are faithful enough to at the very least follow through with the impressions he wants you to have.
3. Continuing in light until the perfect day (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24)
Just as the Lord has given his will for the entire human family "line upon line", could it be that the Lord accommodates revelation to our particular understanding until a later time when he's ready to give us further knowledge about something? Could it be that we are not ready for some knowledge in particular but that the Lord intends to reveal something to us later when we are more mature and able to receive it? Doctrine and Covenants 50:24 tells us that "[t]hat which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day." It could be that our incomplete revelation now will be added on with the light of experience or even further revelation from the Holy Ghost.
Consider what any parent has to do when their young children ask them where babies come from. They have to accommodate their understanding until a later time when they are spiritually and emotionally mature enough to know the whole truth. Could it be that God, in a similar way, allows us to hold onto one narrative about what is true and maybe even gives that to us by revelation until a later time when we are mature enough to know the whole truth? As Paul reminds us, milk before meat is a true principle.
4. Dallin H. Oaks: "[A person may have] a strong desire to be led by the Spirit of the Lord but . . . unwisely extends that desire to the point of wanting to be led in all things."
Dallin H. Oaks teaches that we can be led by false revelation if we extend our desire to receive revelation into praying about unnecessary things:
[A person may have] a strong desire to be led by the Spirit of the Lord but . . . 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"
5. There is some other greater good that you are not aware of right now but will be in the future
If you miss the fruition of an impression, it may bring about a greater good as when Joseph was sold into Egypt. Sometimes the greater good is not immediately forthcoming or obvious to us.
6. The Lord is chastening you
The Lord tells us that he chastens us and scourges us because he loves us in Proverbs, Hebrews, and Helaman. We have to be faithful to receive blessings. When we are humble we are more likely to be faithful and turn to him for assistance. King Limhi in the Book of Mormon taught his people that "if ye will turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, and put your trust in him, and serve him with all diligence of mind, if ye do this, he will, according to his own will and pleasure, deliver you out of bondage."
7. The Lord is providing you an Abrahamic test of faith
It provides an Abrahamic test of faith. The prophet Joseph Smith is canonized saying “deep water is what I am wont to swim in. It all has become second nature to me, and I feel like Paul, to glory in tribulation”. The Lord isn’t going to spare us any test of faith in life. He told Brigham Young that "[m]y people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom." He will actively test us to prepare us for greater things. Trying to learn how to receive and follow inspiration and trust in God is not an exception.
8. Confusing an emotion for the Spirit
It is possible to confuse emotion for a spiritual impression. Sometimes a warm feeling or heart murmur may be over-interpreted as coming from a spiritual stimulus. We should take time when trying to receive inspiration to ponder what we are feeling and seek to counsel long with the Lord if wanting to receive an answer to prayer.
9. You received a true revelation, but didn't interpret it correctly
Some people do receive an impression, but don’t interpret them correctly. Oftentimes we are receiving inspiration from the Spirit to confirm a thought but perhaps we aren’t still enough to capture its still small voice and we may get distracted from what it is trying to communicate to us. Some revelation requires conscious thought to interpret correctly. The Doctrine & Covenants records Joseph Smith having to be left to wonder as to the proper meaning of revelation that he received relative to the Second Coming of the Savior (Doctrine & Covenants 130: 12-17). We may have to do the same at different points of our lives. As a word of caution: it may be only while looking back on that revelation in retrospect that we’ll recognize exactly why we were inspired to do, say, and or/believe something.
It is important to be still and focus so that we can carefully discern what exactly the spirit is prompting us to do and/or believe. Oftentimes we haven’t studied an issue out in our minds thoroughly as is often required of us when trying to seek inspiration. When we don’t, we may not get what we’re looking for (Doctrine & Covenants 9:7-9).
10. Wrong Roads May Lead to More Certain Conviction of the Truth
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles offers apostolic perspective on this important question in this video from the Church's YouTube page.
11. Perhaps this is God giving us an opportunity to learn how to forgive a fallen divine
Here is just one thing that the author considers a logical possibility. It's not a traditional recommendation but it may be an orthodox one.
We know that God's essential nature is love from 1 John 4:8.
We also know from places like Alma 42:13, 22, 25 that God, if he ceases to do what is the most moral thing to do, ceases to be God; he ceases to have that title. We learn that it is a logical possibility for God to fail to do what is moral; what the right thing to do is. He hasn't ceased to do the most moral thing over eons of time and that's why we worship him: he could have failed to do the moral thing but he hasn't. He has remained everlastingly good.
The Lord tells Brigham Young in Doctrine & Covenants 136 that "[m]y people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom." We learn that the Lord gives us these trials so that we can be instructed in how to love and thus adopt his nature. Part of the definition of love is to restore happiness to someone's life that has had evil/pain/discomfort introduced into it.
Well, what it the Lord tries us by allowing a spiritual impression/revelation to fail for the purpose of learning a kind of "forgiveness" of the Lord for his "failure" to bring the the promised fruition?
Paradoxically, the Lord hasn't failed us because he has taught us how to tolerate and forgive the failure of a God and thus an important part of what love means and what its fullest practice is, but he has failed to provide the promised fruition of a blessing. The Lord has succeeded in instructing us in the fullest meaning of the law of love.
Revelation takes time to master. We should understand how the Spirit functions and continue to test our knowledge. Eventually we are promised to see fruits for our efforts—even miracles
Revelation takes time to master. The best we can do is understand how the Spirit works by reading the scriptures and following the impression we receive as best as we can discern them. We are promised that as we are humble, the Lord will lead us by the hand and give us answers to our prayers (Doctrine & Covenants 112:10) and that signs will follow the believers (Doctrine & Covenants 63:9)
A key to understanding when something is authentic is its effect on you. It should feel like it didn’t come from you or was willed by you or as Joseph Smith says, like “pure intelligence" flowing into you:
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.
However, as Boyd K. Packer points out, revelation does not "flow without effort" on the part of the person desiring it:
To one who thought that revelation would always flow without effort (although sometimes the revelation is spontaneous), the Lord said:
“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. “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.” This burning in the bosom is not purely a physical sensation. It is more like a warm light shining within your being.Describing the promptings from the Holy Ghost to one who has not had them is very difficult. Such promptings are personal and strictly private!
Doctrine & Covenants 50:24
The fruit of our impressions will become clearer to us as we continue in God. As expressed in Doctrine & Covenants 50:24:
24 That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.
As we remain humble, patient, and allow things to play out, God will allow us to understand what he means to teach us. As we grow into the principle of revelation, we will be better prepared to understand the Lord’s design and method for shaping our lives.
Trust and Follow All Spiritual Impressions
Some may take some of the suggestions of this article to mean that they should not trust their spiritual impressions or not act on them. On the contrary, one should trust and follow all spiritual impressions since they will ultimately shape us into the type of disciples the Lord would have us be. They'll also shape us into the gods that we are meant to become after this life. Reviewing all of the proposed explanations above, one common theme running through them is that they are moments of instruction via different modes of spiritual pedagogy. They instruct us in following God and learning the law of love as taught by the Savior and the scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. No-one should feel any incentive to believe that their spiritual impressions are "untrustworthy" because of these different "failures" of spiritual impressions. True it is that Moroni tells us that "by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." However, he does not tell us how the Holy Ghost will lead us into the truth of all things. The Holy Ghost will lead us to the truth, but how he does may be different than we expect. Additionally, we have to remember that there are false spirits that may lead us away from the truth. Doctrine & Covenants 50:1–3 informs us of that. Perhaps God allows us to be led away by these false spirits from time to time for the purpose of shaping us as people and as disciples.
We hope that no one will turn away from the Spirit and their experiences with it because of confusions and trials of their faith such as this. It may come down to a choice to continue to believe and we hope that everyone will "choose eternal life, according to the will of [H]is Holy Spirit".
Question: Can spiritual experiences be simply willed to reality?
The claim is contradicted by the lived experiences of many, many people.
Some secularist critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make claims that mean to persuade people that spiritual experiences are simply willed to fruition and are thus ultimately meaningless. The claim is contradicted by the lived experiences of many, many people. Many members of the Church and even more likely those that have served missions will know of investigators or other members they know/knew that don’t/didn’t receive a spiritual experience that confirms/ed the truth of the Book of Mormon or the Church to them even after years of praying. Additionally, spiritual experiences such as burnings have been kept from people to the point that they have a faith crisis. Take, for example, the experience of famous Latter-day Saint musician Michael McClean:
Thus, claims that spiritual experiences are simply willed to fruition or are deterministic are fundamentally misinformed about the nature of spiritual experience.
Question: Can one simply decide when one feels and doesn't feel the Spirit?
The scriptures affirm that we can “turn it on an off” so to speak
Some former Latter-day Saint critics and faithful members occasionally ask if it is possible to “turn the feeling of the Spirit on and off”.
The scriptures affirm that such a thing is possible. 2 Nephi 33:2 is most instructive:
“2 But behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught”
Notice here how Nephi in his parting testimony is using a personal verb to describe the hardening. It is us who harden our own hearts against God and the Spirit or at least who have the power to.
The next line of response here is a discussion of the Light of Christ. In Latter-day Saint theology, the Light of Christ is something that “light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things” (D&C 88:13). The Light of Christ is given to all men (Moroni 7:16) and it is what Latter-day Saints believe that the Holy Spirit makes contact with when imparting wisdom to anyone. Through disobedience, we lose the ability to feel the Spirit since the Lord cannot dwell in unholy houses (Alma 7:21; Doctrine and Covenants 97:17). When we remain worthy of it, we are promised that we will always feel it or that it will always be with us (Moroni 4:3; 5:2). Thus, yes, it is certainly possible to turn our hearts to and away from the Spirit as we will it.
- This is essentially the view that biblical scholars recognize as being advocated in the Bible. Donald R. Potts, "Body" in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible ed., David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000) 194; Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., "Soul" Ibid., 1245; Alice Ogden Bellisb, "Spirit" Ibid., 1248.
- Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), 31.
- Dialogue with Trypho 8, Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:198
- Shepard of Hermas, Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:24
- Dallin H. Oaks, "Teaching and Learning by the Spirit," Ensign 27 (March 1997): 14.
- Dr. Wendy Ulrich, "'Believest thou…?': Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience," Proceedings of the 2005 FAIR Conference (2005).
- Jeremy Runnells, Letter to a CES Director (2013)
- Clyde J. Williams, ed., The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 184.
- (quoted in Juvenile Instructor, 19 July 1873, 114)
- "FAIR Questions 2: Recognizing the Voice of the Spirit," FairMormon Blog (28 August 2011).
- Website: MormonThink, Article: "Testimony & Spiritual Witnesses," URL: mormonthink.com (Last accessed: 4 Jun. 2011) FAIR review
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City, UT: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2004).
- Boyd K. Packer, "[https://www.lds.org/ensign/1983/01/the-candle-of-the-lord?lang=eng The Candle of the Lord," Ensign (January 1983), 53.
- Ezra Taft Benson, A Witness and a Warning: A Modern-Day Prophet Testifies of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1988), 15-16.
- Preach My Gospel.
- "How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?," Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (2004)
- Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith," 151.
- D&C 9:7–8
- Boyd K. Packer, "Personal Revelation: The Gift, the Test, and the Promise," Ensign (November 1994).
- Boyd K. Packer, "Personal Revelation: The Gift, the Test, and the Promise," Ensign (November 1994).
- 1 Corinthians 3:1-2
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign 24, no. 10 (October 1994): 13–14.
- Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6; Helaman 15:3
- Mosiah 7:33
- Doctrine & Covenants 127:2
- Doctrine & Covenants 136.31
- John 14:26
- Moroni 10:5
- 2 Nephi 2:28. Emphasis added.