Part 42: CES Letter Testimony/Spiritual Witness Questions [Section F]
By Sarah Allen
This will be the final post in the section about the Spirit. Next time, we’ll move on to the restoration of the Priesthood and after that, to the Witnesses (which is the largest section in the entire CES Letter), Freemasonry, the Fall/Creation/Adam and Eve, and other issues. We’re in the homestretch, though, and the end of all of this is in sight. It’s been an interesting journey for me and, I hope, for you. I never expected this project to take so much time and effort, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to still be working on it ten months later. It’s been incredibly rewarding, though, and I wanted to thank you all for the support and encouragement you’ve given me as we’ve gone through these issues one by one.
Today, I wanted to open this post with the words of our beloved prophet, President Nelson. In the April 2020 General Conference, he gave a talk entitled “Hear Him,” all about learning how to decipher the words of the Savior given to us through the Spirit. Each of us hears Him in different ways, so we need to learn how the Spirit speaks specifically to us.
In this talk, President Nelson taught:
The adversary is clever. For millennia he has been making good look evil and evil look good. His messages tend to be loud, bold, and boastful.
However, messages from our Heavenly Father are strikingly different. He communicates simply, quietly, and with such stunning plainness that we cannot misunderstand Him.
For example, whenever He has introduced His Only Begotten Son to mortals upon the earth, He has done so with remarkably few words. On the Mount of Transfiguration to Peter, James, and John, God said, “This is my beloved Son: hear him.” His words to the Nephites in ancient Bountiful were “Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him.” And to Joseph Smith, in that profound declaration that opened this dispensation, God simply said, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
… Our Father knows that when we are surrounded by uncertainty and fear, what will help us the very most is to hear His Son.
Because when we seek to hear—truly hear—His Son, we will be guided to know what to do in any circumstance.
The very first word in the Doctrine and Covenants is hearken. It means “to listen with the intent to obey.” To hearken means to “hear Him”—to hear what the Savior says and then to heed His counsel. In those two words—“Hear Him”—God gives us the pattern for success, happiness, and joy in this life. We are to hear the words of the Lord, hearken to them, and heed what He has told us!
As we seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ, our efforts to hear Him need to be ever more intentional. It takes conscious and consistent effort to fill our daily lives with His words, His teachings, His truths.
He goes on to talk about where we can go to hear Him: the scriptures, the temple, and by heeding the words of the prophets. He also impresses upon us how vitally important it is to learn to recognize the voice of the Holy Ghost as He guides us:
… We also hear Him more clearly as we refine our ability to recognize the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. It has never been more imperative to know how the Spirit speaks to you than right now. In the Godhead, the Holy Ghost is the messenger. He will bring thoughts to your mind which the Father and Son want you to receive. He is the Comforter. He will bring a feeling of peace to your heart. He testifies of truth and will confirm what is true as you hear and read the word of the Lord.
I renew my plea for you to do whatever it takes to increase your spiritual capacity to receive personal revelation.
Doing so will help you know how to move ahead with your life, what to do during times of crisis, and how to discern and avoid the temptations and the deceptions of the adversary.
… What will happen as you more intentionally hear, hearken, and heed what the Savior has said and what He is saying now through His prophets? I promise that you will be blessed with additional power to deal with temptation, struggles, and weakness. I promise miracles in your marriage, family relationships, and daily work. And I promise that your capacity to feel joy will increase even if turbulence increases in your life.
Those are some big warnings and some even bigger promises in return for heeding the warnings. The more closely we listen to the Savior, the more blessings we’ll receive in return. The more we listen and act on His words, the more power we will be given.
But it takes practice and work on our part to be able to decipher the guidance of the Spirit both from our own desires and from competing voices who are trying to sway us. It also takes practice to hear what the Spirit is actually saying when we do hear His voice.
The need for this becomes clear when we read Jeremy’s last few questions/comments about the Spirit:
- There are many members who share their testimonies that the Spirit told them that they were to marry this person or go to this school or move to this location or start up this business or invest in this investment. They rely on this Spirit in making critical life decisions. When the decision turns out to be not only incorrect but disastrous, the fault lies on the individual and never on the Spirit. The individual didn’t have the discernment or it was the individual’s hormones talking or it was the individual’s greed talking or the individual wasn’t worthy at the time.
I fundamentally disagree with this premise. Yes, sometimes it is the person’s hormones or greed talking, and yes, sometimes, we lose the ability to feel the Spirit when we aren’t living worthily. Mostly, though, there are other reasons. For instance, it could be because we’re all granted our agency. These blessings are often conditional on all parties listening to the Spirit and doing their best to follow the Savior’s teachings.
For example, we may feel that a marriage is blessed and sanctioned by God, but it is the responsibility of both partners to put in equal effort and work into that marriage. It won’t succeed if one party is doing all of the giving and the other party is doing all of the taking. We may feel it’s a good idea to make a certain investment, but might neglect to notice the prompting to pull out of it at the right time. We may feel that a business partnership is a great idea, and it would be if the other partner was equally inspired to follow the guidance of the Spirit in their life, but maybe they weren’t. Maybe they engaged in shady business practices or just made really unwise decisions and that’s what ran the business into the ground.
Another very strong possibility is that we were given that guidance to give us trials so that we might grow mentally and spiritually, or show us that it was ultimately the wrong path for us so that when we learned what the right path forward was, we wouldn’t hesitate or question it. Maybe it’s because we had to fail initially in order to succeed later.
Back in the July 2005 New Era, Elder Matthew Holland, son of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, recounted a story from his childhood in which he and his father were driving along unfamiliar roads as it was nearing dark, and they came to a fork in the road. (The Church also made a video about this experience which you can watch here.) They prayed and both felt a strong impression to turn left, so they did. About ten minutes later, they came to a dead end and realized it was the wrong path, so they turned around with just enough light to drive back the other way and find their way back home.
As they drove home, young Matthew looked up at his dad and asked why they both felt so strongly to go the wrong way. Elder Holland’s reply was deeply insightful:
My dad said, “Matty, I’ve been thinking and silently praying about that same thing all the way home, because I really did feel a very distinct impression to take the road to the left.”
I was relieved that my first experience with revelation had a “second witness.”
He continued, “The Lord has taught us an important lesson today. Because we were prompted to take the road to the left, we quickly discovered which one was the right one. When we turned around and got on the right road, I was able to travel along its many unfamiliar twists and turnoffs perfectly confident I was headed in the right direction.
“If we had started on the right road, we might have driven for 30 minutes or so, become uneasy with the unfamiliar surroundings, and been tempted to turn back. If we had done that, we would have discovered the dead-end so late that it would have been too dark to find our way back in totally unfamiliar territory.”
I understood and have never forgotten the lesson my Heavenly Father and earthly father taught me that afternoon. Sometimes in response to prayers, the Lord may guide us down what seems to be the wrong road—or at least a road we don’t understand—so, in due time, He can get us firmly and without question on the right road. Of course, He would never lead us down a path of sin, but He might lead us down a road of valuable experience. Sometimes in our journey through life we can get from point A to point C only by taking a short side road to point B. We had prayed that we could make it safely home that day, and we did.
I had a similar experience a few years ago. My main job, which is a contract position, hit a series of slumps because I work for a law firm and there were some massive delays in the court proceedings. Because we only got paid if we were working and we weren’t working, we all went out to find other jobs.
Within two hours of each other, I was offered two different jobs. One was a temporary position and paid less than the other, so I chose the one that paid more and was a work-from-home position, which I prefer over going into an office. This originally felt like a huge blessing, as it was in late Autumn and it would be snowing soon. I hate driving on icy roads because of a bad car accident I was in about 20 years ago, and it gives me a lot of anxiety whenever I have to drive in inclement winter weather. I felt like this was the best position for me, so I prayed over it and felt strongly like I should take the job.
Well, it turned out that they misrepresented everything about the position, from the pay to the hours available to the duties I’d be performing, and within a month, it became crystal clear that I needed to get out of there and find another position ASAP.
I felt impressed to reach out to the interviewer who had offered me the other job. The position I’d originally applied for was full, but they had openings in another department that paid more and was a steady position. I got offered that position two days later after a second interview and accepted. That job was a huge blessing right when I needed it, and if I’d taken the original job offer with that company, it wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well for me. I needed to pass on the original offer and take the awful job so I could be in a good position to apply for the better offer a few weeks later.
For another example, a close friend of mine who is also a writer has a good friend of her own who used to be an editor at Random House. She was working with my friend on developing a potential book series. It was a project my friend wasn’t terribly invested in and one she didn’t feel inspired by. It was a series that would have glorified a gang of thieves to younger audiences, and she just didn’t feel good about using her talents to inspire kids to steal. They were working on it for a few years and weren’t making a lot of headway. But whenever she prayed about it, the answer kept coming that she should stick with it because it would eventually turn out to be a big blessing for her family.
Well, the editor friend quit her job after a terrible experience working on a popular YA series. This made my friend question her answers to all of those prayers, because her project was completely dead after that and there was no hope of getting it published. All that work and stress had seemingly been for nothing.
The editor landed at another, much smaller publishing house with a strict moral code, as it was for children and younger teens and they felt that they should be setting good examples for the kids. So, the content couldn’t feature violence and crimes had to be shown to be bad, etc. Well, because of their prior working relationship, she reached out to our mutual writer friend and offered her the chance to write a different book for her new company, one that fit her moral standards and was the kind of book she would have loved as a child.
She wrote that book very quickly, and it became the most popular piece ever published by that small publisher. While she didn’t get paid the kind of money that a major publishing house would offer, the money she did make was a blessing right when her family badly needed it. It also opened up all kinds of doors for her and has led to some really wonderful things that wouldn’t have been possible had she not worked for a while on that book series she didn’t care for.
Another friend had been working for years to become a doctor, with a specific program and career in mind. He trained and studied very hard for it, but when it came time to go into his program, he wasn’t accepted anywhere that taught it. It was a huge blow. He’d felt sure that was supposed to be his path, and he didn’t know what else to do. So he prayed long and hard, and felt inspired to turn to a program and career path he’d never considered before. He’s still a doctor, but in an entirely different field than the one he originally trained for. He’s been very successful and is completely fulfilled by this career in ways he never thought he could be, and he met his wife in his new program. That career shift has been one of the biggest blessings of his life, and he never would have even considered it if he hadn’t been rejected from his original choice.
You see, sometimes the guidance of the Spirit feels counterintuitive because you’re being taught to have faith. Sometimes, you get prompted to do things that don’t make much sense or that you don’t want to do, and you don’t understand it until much later. A recent article from LDS Living featuring the teachings of Elder Bednar addresses this concept:
The scriptures are filled with revelations that seem counterintuitive. How did the widow of Zarephath feel when Elijah asked her to make him a little cake with the last of her meal? How did Abinadi, Alma the Younger, and Samuel the Lamanite feel when instructed to return to the cities from which they had previously been cast out by the wicked inhabitants? How did Joseph Smith feel sending his most loyal supporters on a mission to Great Britain at a time when he was surrounded by apostates and enemies?
… As we seek for the spiritual gifts of eyes to see and ears to hear by the power of the Holy Ghost, some of the revelatory lessons we learn through the things that we suffer prepare us to receive the blessings of both mortality and eternity.
The Holy Ghost is not always going to invite us to do what is easy or convenient. In fact, the Spirit will sometimes send promptings that go exactly counter to what we want to do. The fact that we would never have thought of such a thing on our own may be an indication that it has come from the Spirit—and that blessings are in store that we would never have imagined.
Just because things don’t work out instantly for the best when you follow the guidance of the Spirit does not mean that there wasn’t a reason for it. There could be a lot of reasons why it didn’t work. Maybe you misread the impressions you were getting, or you weren’t worthy, or you mistook your own desires for inspiration, like Jeremy suggested. Or maybe the other people involved made choices that negated the promise of the Spirit. Or maybe it was a test or a trial. Or maybe you had to go down the wrong path for a little while in order to find the right one for you. The Lord might just be preparing you for something better than you ever expected. You just have to trust in Him and He’ll lead you to where you’re meant to be, even if it’s somewhere you never imagined you’d go.
This poses a profound flaw and dilemma: if individuals can be so convinced that they’re being led by the Spirit but yet be so wrong about what the Spirit tells them, how can they be sure of the reliability of this same exact process and method in telling them that Mormonism is true?
Again, I doubt that anyone ever gets a testimony that “Mormonism is true,” but that’s beside the point.
The entire purpose of this life is to learn how to become more like the Father and the Savior, but we can’t learn to walk without tripping and falling a few times along the way. One of the things we have to learn—one of the things that can cause us to stumble until we get the hang of it—is how to hear and interpret the Spirit. We need to put in the work to learn how the Spirit speaks to us and what it’s saying when it does. Practice makes perfect, after all.
[Moroni] explained “there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all, and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them” (Moroni 10:8).
If this principle is applied to Moroni’s promise, readers can conclude that they should not confine the expected confirmation of truth to a specific type of spiritual manifestation, but rather should be open to the various ways or gifts through which God communicates inspiration and revelation. Elder David A. Bednar has taught, “Revelations are conveyed in a variety of ways, including, for example, dreams, visions, conversations with heavenly messengers, and inspiration. Some revelations are received immediately and intensely; some are recognized gradually and subtly.”
This teaching helps establish that not every person will receive a spiritual confirmation in exactly the same way. Whereas some may experience a powerful burst of spiritual feeling, others might perceive a subtle but consistent stream of subtle impressions. At one time, a person might receive an answer while on bended knees in solitary prayer, and at another time, may obtain a witness while acting on faith to keep the commandments. Whatever the timing or method, Moroni declared that God only “worketh by power, according to the faith of the children of men” (Moroni 10:7). In all cases, it is faith in Jesus Christ that activates the spiritual witness of truth.
Far and away, the most common way I receive inspiration and answers to prayers is through words, thoughts, and impressions in my mind. I do feel the Spirit as a feeling, but it’s rarer for me and usually comes when I’m receiving a spiritual witness that something is true. In those cases, they always go together with equal force . Mostly, though, I receive communication from the Father through words, while the accompanying feelings are like a quiet, little hum in the background that don’t make much noise.
But that’ll be different for everyone. There’s a great series of blog posts on the Interpreter that discusses how it can feel to receive answers through your mind like that, if anyone is interested. There’s also an excellent blog post at FAIR that discusses the different ways to receive revelation, too.
Because we all receive answers from the Holy Ghost differently, it can be hard to learn when we’re hearing Him or when we’re feeling the things we want to feel. It takes practice, and sometimes, we’ll get it wrong. It’s just a fact of life. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the concept altogether and stop trying to get it right. It just means we need to put in some additional work.
How are faith and feelings reliable pathways to truth? Is there anything one couldn’t believe based on faith and feelings?
If faith and feelings can lead one to believe and accept the truth claims of any one of the hundreds of thousands of contradictory religions and thousands of contradictory gods…how then are faith and feelings reliable pathways to truth?
Yes, there are things we couldn’t believe “based on faith and feelings.” We talked before about how the Spirit will not confirm criticisms against the Lord’s prophets and apostles, for example. And I don’t know anyone who has a testimony that germs really exist or that the grass is green. Those aren’t things that you learn “by faith and feeling.”
More importantly, though, the Spirit is not just “faith and feelings.” It is the witness of the Holy Ghost, a member of the Godhead, testifying of eternal truths and guiding us to the best ways and places to discover those truths. And yes, He is reliable. The Lord Himself, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, has promised us that.
The Spirit will not lead us astray. We may not always understand why the Spirit leads us in certain directions, and we may be mistaken occasionally on where the Spirit is actually trying to lead us, but He will never deliberately guide us down the wrong path for longer than it takes to learn the lesson we’re meant to learn before guiding us back to where we need to be. He will testify of truth wherever it is found, and prepare us to receive more truth. But He will not lead us into leaving the Church or abandoning the truth we’ve already been taught.
Jeremy’s question/point #9 is a bit of a head-scratcher to me because I’m not sure how anyone who was raised in the Church could be so off-base with his assertions. Either he never had any sweet clue what the Spirit actually was or what it really felt like, he’s deliberately twisting it now into something grotesque and unrecognizable to deceive people, or whatever light and knowledge he once had is unfortunately long gone.
- I felt the Spirit watching Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. Both R-rated and horribly violent movies. I also felt the Spirit watching Forrest Gump and The Lion King.
I’ve felt the Spirit watching movies before, too. Like I just said, the Spirit testifies of truth wherever it’s found. That includes movies that teach spiritual truths, such as those of sacrifice and laying down your life for your friends and family. The Savior taught spiritual truths using fictional stories, after all, so we already know that’s a valid way to teach by the Spirit.
After learning these disturbing issues, I attended a conference where former Mormons shared their stories. The same Spirit I felt telling me that Mormonism is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet is the same Spirit I felt in all of the above experiences.
This is one of those assertions that I heavily doubt because the Spirit is not going to testify that fault-finding and criticisms of the Gospel or of the Apostles are true. I shared this a few weeks ago, but these are wise words from President Oaks:
In connection with our spiritual powers of evaluation, we need to remember that the Spirit of the Lord will not guide us if our own attitude is one of fault-finding. … Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. … Evil-speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true. As President George F. Richards of the Council of the Twelve said in a Conference address in April 1947:
“When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and thus are working against the Lord and His cause.” (CR, April 1947, p. 24)
… The Holy Ghost will not guide or confirm criticism of the Lord’s anointed, or of Church leaders, local or general. This reality should be part of the spiritual evaluation that LDS readers and viewers apply to those things written about our history and those who made it.
The Holy Ghost does not confirm criticism of those who are called by God to lead His Church. The Spirit will not guide us if we become too critical of others or of the Church. That Jeremy believes he felt the Spirit doing exactly that tells me that he became too critical of the Church and its leaders and that he lost that guidance as a result.
The very fact that Jeremy is claiming his own experiences were spiritual after spending the last several pages of his Letter trashing that very Spirit he’s appealing to now is crazy to me. If the Spirit is unreliable and inefficient and we can’t rely on faith or spiritual experiences to guide us, why would he rely on that same Spirit to lead him out of the Church? How can he say he felt the Spirit while listening to people reject the Spirit as true when he’s already personally rejected the entire premise that the Spirit is real in the first place? That position doesn’t make any sense.
Regardless of the impossibility of that position, if Jeremy thinks the Holy Ghost is only warm, happy feelings, of course he’s going to mistake it when he hears something he wants to hear. But that isn’t all the Holy Ghost is, and simply feeling good is not a spiritual witness. The Spirit engages both your heart and your mind, remember. If that’s not happening, it’s not a spiritual witness.
He goes on to say:
Does this mean that The Lion King is true? That Mufasa is real and true? Does this mean that Forrest Gump is real and the story happened in real life? 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?
Do you see the absurdity here? That a pleasant feeling while watching a movie means that the Spirit must be telling him that fictional characters are real beings and a cartoon was comprised of genuine historical events? Because it’s not like he got down on his knees and prayed before watching the movie to know if the events of said movie actually happened and that the characters were real people, and then received a spiritual witness confirming those things as true. That’s not the way the Spirit works, and the Spirit is not going to testify that fictional beings or cartoons are real life. He just had feelings while watching the movie, so he’s claiming to think that means they’re real. He’s deliberately making a mockery of the very act of communing with our Father in Heaven.
So, again, either he never knew what the Spirit actually was to begin with and has never actually felt it, he’s deliberately lying and is twisting it into something it’s not in order to manipulate his readers, or he’s become so hostile toward the truth that he can’t recognize it at all anymore and can’t remember his spiritual experiences for what they really were.
Why is this Spirit so unreliable and inconsistent? How can I trust such an inconsistent and contradictory Source for knowing that Mormonism is worth betting my life, time, money, heart, mind, and obedience to?
That Spirit he described is not unreliable or inconsistent. In fact, the Spirit as presented here by Jeremy doesn’t exist at all. It’s a distorted caricature of the real thing and bears little to no resemblance to what the Spirit actually is or does. And no, you can’t trust that distortion at all.
But the Spirit of God is an entirely different thing than what Jeremy claims it is. The Holy Ghost is a spirit, yes, but He’s a thinking and feeling being who not only brings us peace and joy, but a flood of knowledge at the same time. He guides us and illuminates the darkness so we can find our way. He does far more than just send us happy feelings when we watch a good movie or hear something we want to hear. He teaches us how to become like our Heavenly Parents.
Jeremy closes this section by linking to a video he thinks is “mind-blowing,” “profound,” and “thought-provoking”:
The following mind-blowing video raises some profound and thought-provoking questions about the reliability of a “witness from the Holy Ghost” for discerning truth and reality.
Now, I sat down and watched that video to see if I could see where Jeremy was coming from with his over-the-top praise of it. It’s basically just a rehash of everything Jeremy said here, with a handy link to the creator’s Paypal page so we could pay him for his video. It’s all the same thing over and over again: “The Spirit is unreliable and lots of people feel it and think it’s telling them contradictory things.” Except that the narrator doesn’t allow for any nuance or any other interpretation but his own, which is badly off the mark.
Regardless, I watched it to see if I could get anything of value out of it. You see, I believe in being open-minded when someone presents new ideas or information. The problem is, to paraphrase a famous quote, I don’t believe in being so open-minded that my brains fall out. To believe the distortions presented in that video, my brain would have had to have fallen out.
And to believe Jeremy’s position that the Spirit doesn’t exist, but if it does it’s unreliable and inconsistent, and it testifies of the truth of people testifying that it doesn’t exist to someone who has already determined that it doesn’t exist, and it testifies to every person on Earth that their church is the true church of God regardless of what their beliefs actually are, and it testifies that fictional cartoon characters are real, physical beings who really experienced the things we see them experience in movies, and it acts as a polygraph machine that tells you instantly whenever anyone says anything even slightly untrue, and it’s exactly the same thing as watching an emotional commercial and nothing more, I’d have to be like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz and not have any brain at all.
My entire life’s experience with the Holy Ghost tells me He’s none of those things Jeremy claims, and I can’t deny the many witnesses I’ve received from Him. In closing, I’d just like to share one more thought from President Nelson, given from the same talk cited in the opening paragraphs of this post:
The increasing darkness that accompanies tribulation makes the light of Jesus Christ shine ever brighter.
No matter what we’re going through, the Savior is always there for us. He knows how we feel. He experienced all of our pains in Gethsemane—physical, mental, and spiritual—and He will sent His Spirit to comfort us when we need Him. That’s the true beauty of the Holy Ghost: He can and will come to us wherever we are, whenever we need Him. We only have to live worthily enough to invite His help, and to learn how to hear His voice when He calls to us.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.