Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Once more, with feeling

In my last post, I spoke about the separation of spiritual experience and emotion. Today I’d like to talk about the combination of the two.

I quoted Elder Packer in the last post in which he described how the Holy Ghost communicates with us: it whispers; it speaks understanding. In his description there was nothing to suggest that spiritual communication was also emotional.

Doctrine & Covenants 6 bears this idea out, speaking of Oliver’s experience with his testimony of the prophet Joseph and his work:

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.

Behold, thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth (Sec 6:14-15).

And also later the Lord reminds Oliver:

Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God (v. 23)?
That said, in Doctrine & Covenants 8, the Lord tells Oliver Cowdrey that the spirit speaks to mind and heart:

“Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart” (v 2).

And the Lord’s instruction to Oliver confirm that spiritual confirmation may come at least near the heart:

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).

Alma also hints at the heart as receiver of spiritual communication when he teaches the Zoramites:

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me (32:8).

It’s easy for me to see why some equate emotional response with a burning in the bosom. Except for me, that’s not the way it happens.

I can tell when a movie (or an AT&T commercial) is going to make me tear up. I know where the feeling starts and how the tears will come. Sometimes I have similar reactions in sacrament meeting, especially if someone relates an experience with which I can easily empathize. That tearing up, for me, is not the spirit bearing witness.

Other times, however, I will feel the burning in the bosom – the confirming witness that truth is being taught – and then, in response to that stimulus, I may have an emotional response, as well. Emotion, for me, comes after the spirit.

That is my experience, and it took me some time to sort all of this out for myself.

There’s another component of this process that is important to me. When teaching the Zoramites, Alma also says:

Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed (32:15).
Alma’s talking about the fact that the Zoramites’ humble condition makes them able to feel spiritual promptings. The role of humility in our being able to feel the spirit is significant in my experience. I’m not in anyone else’s skin, so I can’t speak for others. But for me, I need to be in a position to receive the witness. That may be because I’ve been studying something out for some time. It may be because I’ve fasted and prayed. It may be because I’m (finally) willing to follow the Lord’s will instead of trying to dictate to Him what I hope His will will be.

An experience:

Late in my high school years, I came home from a month’s foreign exchange experience in Europe to find my mother had signed me up for youth conference. I was not excited to go, but agreed to attend because my mother wanted me to (she almost never played the “mom” card, so it was impossible for me to say no to her). Conference was ok. There were classes and dances, and the normal stuff from a 1970’s youth conference.

Of course we didn’t sleep much. We ate dorm food. We had a dance until late into the evening on Saturday and met on Sunday morning (early, without breakfast) for a priesthood meeting (the girls were in a young women’s meeting), followed by a testimony meeting.

Like all the other boys, I was tired going into that priesthood meeting. It was a little hard to stay awake. Our visitor from Salt Lake (I don’t remember who he was) was an entertaining speaker though, and at least he kept me awake.

As he taught, I became increasingly interested in listening to him. He taught about the pre-mortal existence, the fall of Adam, and the plan of redemption. It was a message that touched my heart. I was not emotionally charged by what he said, but I felt that swelling in my breast that Alma described. I knew in my head and in my heart what he was saying was true. I knew more then – that day – than I ever had before that God loved me, that Jesus Christ had atoned for my sins, and that I could enjoy the power of his redeeming love in my life.

When I reflect on that experience now, I am often a little weepy. Not because the tears are a sign of the spirit’s confirmation, but because of the significance of the event for me in my life and the changes it prompted me to make in my thinking and in my plans, and the course it drove me to choose. It was a tender moment, and, yes, even a tender mercy in my life.

I’m grateful for the Lord’s speaking to my heart and my mind that day and many times since.

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