Question: Can the Spirit confirm to me that I'm okay to leave the Church?

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Can the Spirit confirm to me that I’m okay to leave the Church?

Introduction to Criticism

As a part of their epistemology, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that commitment and/or belief may be established by spiritual experience. This experience is known as having an experience with the “Holy Ghost” aka the "Holy Spirit."[1] As part of the experience of feeling the Spirit, members will frequently report (among other sensations and phenomena) feelings such as swelling motions in their chest, warmth in the chest, clarity of mind, and revelation of knowledge. It is taught that these spiritual experiences are able to lead you into the truth of all things.[2]

Some have reported that they have had spiritual experiences that have confirmed to them that they are okay to resign membership in the Church. Why would the Spirit confirm to someone that they’re okay to leave the Church?

This article responds to this question.

Response to Question

Difference Between What We Experience and How We Understand the Cause of an Experience

The first important point to keep in mind is to remember that there is a difference between what we experience and what our experience tells us and how we label that experience or understand its cause.

Moroni tells us that we should “not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.”[3] Therefore, we should be careful to review our experience and what the scriptures say about that experience to accurately determine what might come from God and what might not. We look to the scriptures since, as Christ tells us, if we look to his words then we will not be deceived in the last days.[4]

If someone feels like they can or that it is okay to leave the Church, we may understand this experience better in light of 2 Nephi 2:27-28.

Some might have experienced receiving a prompting that they can or that it is okay for them to leave the Church should they desire it. This is entirely consistent with what we find in 2 Nephi 2:27-28:

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, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;

What’s interesting about this passage is that it tells us to choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit. We are free to choose eternal life and salvation or captivity and death. The Spirit can confirm that we are free to choose either and encourage us to move towards salvation. It cannot tell us that we should move towards captivity and death. This is where we proceed to the other half of conversation.

If someone feels like they have been told that they should leave the Church, we may understand this in light of Moroni 7 and D&C 52

Some might have experienced receiving a prompting that they should leave the Church. These experiences will need to be interpreted as inspired by false spirits and revelation. We are told by the Lord that there are “many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world. And also Satan hath sought to deceive you, that he might overthrow you."[5]

Satan and these spirits are naturally going to try and lead you away from God, Christ, and their Church. The scriptures warn us about this several times.[6]

Doctrine and Covenants 52 gives us this pattern for understanding spirits. Doctrine and Covenants 52 was given through Joseph Smith at a Church conference in Kirtland, Ohio on June 6, 1831. As the section heading to D&C 52 states in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, “certain manifestations of false and deceiving spirits were discerned and rebuked.” This portion of the revelation, consisting of verses 14-21, gives a pattern by which everyone can know if a spirit is from God or not:

14 And again, I will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived; for Satan is abroad in the land, and he goeth forth deceiving the nations—
15 Wherefore he that prayeth, whose spirit is contrite, the same is accepted of me if he obey mine ordinances.
16 He that speaketh, whose spirit is contrite, whose language is meek and edifieth, the same is of God if he obey mine ordinances.
17 And again, he that trembleth under my power shall be made strong, and shall bring forth fruits of praise and wisdom, according to the revelations and truths which I have given you.
18 And again, he that is overcome and bringeth not forth fruits, even according to this pattern, is not of me.
19 Wherefore, by this pattern ye shall know the spirits in all cases under the whole heavens.
20 And the days have come; according to men’s faith it shall be done unto them.
21 Behold, this commandment is given unto all the elders whom I have chosen.

Thus, if you are being led to not obey God’s ordinances (probably best interpreted as “commandments”) that he has given to this Church, then you are being led away from him. The people who are following true spirits are those that are being made strong and bringing forth fruits of praise and wisdom because they keep the commandments that God has given us by revelation through his appointed prophet.

What are some of those commandments? These include being baptized in the Lord’s “only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth."[7] The Lord commands all people to even be rebaptized if not baptized into his true church.[8] They include enduring to the end faithful in the covenant made with God so you can have eternal life.[9] If a spirit is leading you away from these commandments, then it cannot be the Holy Spirit and should therefore be rejected.

Doctrine & Covenants 50:31–33 gives us another way to discern false spirits:

31 Wherefore, it shall come to pass, that if you behold a spirit manifested that you cannot understand, and you receive not that spirit, ye shall ask of the Father in the name of Jesus; and if he give not unto you that spirit, then you may know that it is not of God.
32 And it shall be given unto you, power over that spirit; and you shall proclaim against that spirit with a loud voice that it is not of God—
33 Not with railing accusation, that ye be not overcome, neither with boasting nor rejoicing, lest you be seized therewith.

This procedure may be helpful for dealing with this type of impression.

How do I really know that I’m following spirits, much less the true spirit?

Some people might have one last question spring up because of an experience like this and that is “how am I supposed to really know that I’m following spirits that actually exist and not just my own brain chemistry being interpreted as such?”

This is a good question. There is perhaps a lot more that can be said about this elsewhere on the site.

One point that might be brought up here is that revelation given through Joseph Smith has a lot of evidence to support it. The Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham can be rigorously defended as authentic and ancient by some of the best that secular scholarship has to offer us today.[10] If these books of scripture are historical, then they confirm that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, that actual spirits exist, and that this way of interpreting spiritual experience is the one that will actually lead us to eternal life with God.

Important to Not Confuse Relief from Contemplating Potential Exculpation from Consequences for our Actions with the Spirit

Latter-day Saint PhD candidate in psychology Sam Major has encouraged us not to equate the relief that comes when accountability has been erased for genuine revelation. When someone is in faith crisis, they are going to feel a lot of emotional tension and are going to consider leaving the Church. They may have sinned a lot and may not want to be accountable for their sins anymore. Thus, on top of what they perceive are good intellectual reasons for leaving the Church, they have an added incentive to leave so that they don't become accountable for certain choices. When they remove accountability for themselves and conclude that the Church is false, they feel a sense of what they describe as "peace". But this is better thought of as relief from the emotional turmoil one may have been facing when considering their sins and what sort of consequences they may need to face for them.

Major productively distinguishes between the "peace" that one gets from potential exculpation from consequences and the peace of the Lord. He invites us to consider how we can better recognize the difference between the two so that we don't fall trap to bad thinking.[11]

It's important that we do remain clean from sin so that we can be worthy of feeling and being guided by the Spirit. The Lord tells us that he does not dwell in unholy temples.[12]

It is true that peace is one of the best witnesses that the Lord can give us. The Lord said so himself to Oliver Cowdery.[13] But we should be careful to distinguish peace from the Lord and his Spirit from mere relief from the release of emotional tension or revelation from a false spirit. Major's article as well as this one will be helpful in doing that.

Is There Any Case When it May be Okay to Leave the Church?

Some may still bring up other cases in which a person may be justified in leaving the Church. What if someone has an abusive bishop or ward member and they can't, given the Church's prohibition on people attending congregations outside their geographic ward boundaries, go to another ward? It's important to recognize that in cases like these it would only justify, at most, not attending Church. It wouldn't justify removing one's name from the records of the Church. That would be to release yourself entirely from covenants you've made.

But Why Would Someone Feel So Much Love Around Those that Have Left the Church, Struggle With It, or Don't Fit into It's Mold?

Others report that they feel a tremendous amount of love and spiritual power around those that have left the Church, struggle with it including those that are currently in faith crisis or don't believe in a lot of its doctrines, or "don't fit into the Church's mold" including those that experience same-gender attraction or gender dysphoria.

In another article, we talked about the possibility of recognizing that feelings like these aren't bad ones to have and may be a reflection of the pure love of Christ that we can have. We are on this earth to learn love so that we can take on God's nature of love.[14] We’re supposed to be learning how to become “of one heart and one mind”.[15] That can't happen unless we are confronting the real challenges that people face, empathizing with them, and identifying solutions to those challenges. The challenges faced by those that leave the Church, have a faith crisis, are bothered by one or more of the Church's doctrines or standards, and those that experience same-gender attraction and/or gender dyphoria are real and sensitive. Opening our hearts to them and seeking to help them is one way we can experience the pure love of Christ for them.[16]

It's misguided, however, to equate the love that we feel for people and their real struggles as prima facie evidence that the Church is false, that we should leave the Church, or that one or more of the Church’s doctrines is false. If anything, it's evidence we should stay and believe the Church is true! It’s evidence that the Lord has given us real-world opportunities to put into action what we learn about love and how it’s supposed to operate from the scriptures.

But how can these false spirits actually touch me?

Another valid question people bring up is why these spirits can actually touch a person and convince them of falsehood.

We know that all of Satan’s emissaries are made of matter. All of our spirits are made of matter.[17] They may have either observed how the Spirit touches us or seen how we report our experiences with the Spirit and tried to mimick that. Obviously if they are false Spirits and they want to be convincing to us in deceiving us about the truth, they are going to do their best to counterfeit genuine impressions.

Critics might respond by bringing up Doctrine & Covenants 129 where Joseph Smith gives instructions on the detection and understanding of heavenly messengers. There, Joseph Smith says that if the devil appears to you as an angel of light you should offer your hand and you’ll know that it’s the devil because he’ll offer his hand and try to shake your hand but you won’t feel it. But this passage does not necessitate the conclusion that material spirits can deceive you and touch you. It could mean other things. Why couldn’t it mean that God will deactivate the power of your nerves in your hand somehow so that you don’t feel the material Satan? Who knows how he could affect time and space to make this test efficacious for detecting Satan as a false angel of light? He has all power and can do many things with it.

But Why Does God Allow Us to Be Deceived?

But why would God allow false spirits to tempt us and deceive us? We know as Latter-day Saints that a part of this life is to learn both good and evil. Experiencing false revelation is certainly a part of that journey and learning.

Conclusion

These questions are sometimes scary if we don’t have the right principles in mind when evaluating spiritual experiences and revelation; but it is the author’s hope that laying the right principles out in this article explicitly will help bring some peace to the hearts of those that have struggled with this question and lead all of us to the “thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths” that our Heavenly Parents have promised us if we are faithful to the end and keep all their commandments.[18]

Notes

  1. Moroni 10:3–5
  2. Moroni 10:5
  3. Moroni 7:14
  4. Joseph Smith-Matthew 1:37
  5. Doctrine & Covenants 50:2–3
  6. Moroni 7:12, 17
  7. Doctrine & Covenants 1:30
  8. Doctrine & Covenants 22
  9. 2 Nephi 31:16, 20
  10. See Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013); John W. Welch, ed., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997). For an overview of evidence for the Book of Abraham, see here. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014).
  11. Samuel Major, "Are You Feeling Peace or Just Relief," Public Square Magazine, July 29, 2022, https://publicsquaremag.org/faith/gospel-fare/are-you-feeling-peace-or-just-relief/?.
  12. Mosiah 2:36-37; Alma 7:21; 34:36; Helaman 4:24
  13. Doctrine & Covenants 6:23
  14. 1 John 4:8
  15. Moses 7:18
  16. Moroni 7:47-48
  17. Doctrine & Covenants 131:7–8
  18. Doctrine & Covenants 132:19