Thursday, June 23, 2016
The Difficulty of Deciphering Spiritual Communication
This post and the next are intended to provide some sort of context for many topics I will write about in the future, including several on various aspects of the Book of Mormon. Let me start by making a general observation. Sometimes in the Church we get the idea that in both our personal lives and our institutional experience the Lord guides us in an unmistakably clear manner. I would suggest, though, based on my own personal experience, conversations with others, and my observations of Church leaders at both the local and general level, that spiritual communication—revelation, if you will—can be devilishly difficult to decipher.
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Story #1. A few months more than 40 years ago, I trekked with the rest of the Eppendorf zone on a crisp February morning out to the chapel in Pinneberg, a small city just northwest of Hamburg, where we held a zone conference. The day was memorable for several reasons, but primarily for a promise we received from one of the president’s assistants. I don’t remember the exact context in which this promise was given, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why this promise came from an assistant and not the president himself, but I still remember Elder Smart (not his real name) standing in front of all 22 of us, raising his right arm to the square and saying something very close to this: “I promise you, in the name of Jesus Christ, that if you work 55 hours each week during the month of March, someone you are teaching right now will be baptized.”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it too. Right now, sitting here at the computer 40 years later, I want to scream out, “You can’t make a promise like that! You just CAN’T! There’s something we call agency that won’t allow it. There are all sorts of theological problems with a promise like that.” The other thing you’re probably thinking is that 55 hours isn’t very much. For a promise like that wouldn’t a slightly greater sacrifice be in order? Say, 70 hours, or even 80? Well, you need to realize that under this mission president, travel time did not count as “work” time. And we were on bikes for the most part, so any time we spent pedaling from here to there (and we did a fair amount of that) didn’t factor into the total hours. Not only did this keep our hours down, but it was also a record-keeping nightmare. Our second mission president rectified this. His philosophy was that as soon as we left the apartment in the morning, we were on the Lord’s errand.
But all this is beside the point. The point is what happened after the assistant made the promise. At least for me, the promise hit like a hammer to the forehead. A force I clearly assumed was the Holy Ghost confirmed to me in a rather powerful way that the promise was true. I assumed the other 21 missionaries felt the same thing I did, because when the assistant asked us all to raise our arms to the square and commit to work those 55 hours, 21 arms shot up. Yes, 21. Everyone except my companion. I could have strangled him. It turns out he was simply worried that he might get sick or have a bike accident (which, ironically, he did) or be prevented by something beyond his control from working the 55 hours. Well, after a heart-to-heart talk with one of the zone leaders, who explained that this sort of going-out-on-a-limb is actually what faith is all about, my companion likewise made the promise.
And in spite of the bike accident, we did work 55 hours every week in March. And nobody got baptized. Of this I am quite, but not 100 percent, sure. First, we had very few investigators, and none were really interested. I know that none of them got baptized before I went home more than a year later. Yes, I know that the promise was a bit vague. It didn’t specify when the baptism would occur. No grand deadline. So, who knows, maybe next year someone we were teaching at the time will finally take the plunge. But I know what was intended with the promise, and it wasn’t that 41 years down the road somebody would be baptized. The implied message was that the baptism would happen soon. But just to be sure, just to give that stroke of inspiration a fair chance, I’ve done due diligence in following up. I’ve kept in touch with some of the members in that ward. One even ended up married to the stake president, and several years ago I talked him into sending me a ward list. None of the names matched. Yes, I realize that one of our investigators may have moved and was baptized somewhere else. But I covered that that possibility too. When I was working at Church magazines, I could get member information if I had good reason. I figured this was a good reason (it would have made a darn good story), so I sent the membership information folks a request to see if any of the names of people we were teaching back in 1976 showed up on Church records. Nope. Not one. Since then I’ve let it drop. I know what I felt at the time. And I’ve had to look for other explanations.
All I can assume is that I either misinterpreted what I felt or that the feeling was something from inside me rather than from outside. After 40 years, it’s impossible to say. What I do know, from this and other experiences, is that deciphering spiritual feelings and promptings and confirmations is no easy matter. It’s not an exact science; at least it isn’t for me, and apparently for many others too.
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Story #2. Let’s fast-forward a few years. In the fall of 1980, I moved into a new BYU student ward. The first Sunday I was not at church. As I recall, I was home in Ogden. The next Saturday, though, we had a ward activity up Provo Canyon. While there, I met the new elders quorum president, Paul (his real name). He seemed unusually curious about me. I didn’t think much of it until the next day, when I was called to be his first counselor. Then he told me the backstory. The previous week, he had looked high and low for his counselors. He found his second counselor, but somehow he knew his first counselor was not there. When he saw me at the ward party, though, he said he immediately knew he had found his missing counselor. I was impressed. Who am I to argue with that sort of inspiration?
The next summer Paul got married, and I was called to replace him. Now it was my turn to find counselors in the upheaval that is normal from year to year in student wards. Paul’s second counselor became my first counselor. That was easy. But I needed to find a second counselor. So Steve and I went visiting. We dropped in on all the men’s apartments in the ward, trying to tap into some spiritual vibes about the elders, most of whom were new. There were two who stood out. I had a very positive feeling about one, but I had a rather intense impression about the other. The former became my counselor. The latter pulled me aside on the landing outside his apartment as we were leaving to quietly inform me that he couldn’t hold any callings in the ward because he had been excommunicated. He had been rebaptized and was awaiting the restoration of his priesthood and temple blessings. By the end of the school year, that restoration happened.
This experience taught me something about how difficult it is to decipher the message in some spiritual promptings. Based on the relative intensity of the feelings I had, I would have selected the second of the two to be my counselor. But my interpretation was off. Not far off, but off. Something very good was happening in this young man’s life. I apparently sensed this. But I had no clue what the feeling meant.
Now, in using my own experiences to make this point, I should confess that there are certainly many members of the Church (and many non-Mormons) who are much better at understanding spiritual communication than I am. But I still maintain that this is not an exact science, even for bishops and stake presidents and apostles and prophets.
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Story #3. This one comes from Elder Gerald N. Lund. “When I was serving as a bishop some years ago, a colleague and I were talking about giving priesthood blessings and the importance of staying in tune. He then shared an experience he had had when he was a young bishop. He said he had received a call in the middle of the night to go to the hospital. A woman in the ward had collapsed into unconsciousness as she was preparing for bed. Now she lay in a coma. The desperate husband asked the bishop to come and help administer to her. When the bishop arrived, the man was so distraught he asked the bishop to give the blessing. ‘It was a deeply emotional moment,’ my friend said. ‘This couple had five children still in the home. The doctors weren’t yet sure what was wrong, but her vital signs were dropping steadily. As I began the blessing, suddenly I had this overwhelming feeling of peace and light come over me. I stopped for a moment and looked into my heart. Was this really from the Lord or just me, I wondered. I had never experienced anything so powerful before, and I decided the feeling was truly from the Lord.’
“Relieved to have such clear direction, he proceeded with the blessing. ‘I promised her that she would be healed, that she would be raised from the bed of her afflictions, that she would have the privilege of raising her children to adulthood in this life.’ The former bishop stopped, searching my face. ‘It was a wonderful experience. I wept for joy. The husband did as well.’ Then, in a very soft voice, he concluded. ‘But I had been home for only a few hours when the husband called to tell me that his wife had passed away without regaining consciousness.’”
Elder Lund then asks these questions: “Did these powerful feelings just come from his own emotions, from his earnest—and righteous—desire to bless a family in crisis? Or was the experience real, but in his eagerness to help, he put his own interpretation on what the feelings meant? Is it possible that we can have true spiritual experiences and yet misinterpret them?”1
I would suggest that the answer to any of these questions might well be yes. Especially to the last question.
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In a previous posts, I have mentioned the experience my wife had of receiving the call to be Primary president but, after saying yes, having very troubling feelings about the call. She went to the bishop and told him about her feelings. He prayed about it and got a different answer the second time. “Sister Terry, this call is not for you right now.” Circumstances soon revealed why, and a few years later the same call came without the troubling feelings. The relevant point here, though, is that the bishop had misinterpreted a spiritual confirmation. When questioned, he went to the Lord and got a different message. Or maybe it was the same message, but the second time he had more information or was more open to a different answer and therefore interpreted the message more accurately.
In a different previous post, I also mentioned the story a friend of mine told me about his sister-in-law, who was promised by an Apostle in a priesthood blessing that she would be healed from her cancer. Within months she was dead. So it’s not just local leaders who are prone to misinterpreting the Spirit now and then. Church history, if you read enough of it, is full of examples of inspiration gone awry, including prophecies that didn’t get fulfilled. If the prophets had been right, we would now be in Jackson County and the Second Coming would have already happened.
In recent years, I have witnessed firsthand as friends and fellow ward members have been stricken with cancer. They have prayed and felt very strongly that God was telling them they would be healed. Priesthood blessings confirmed these feelings. But after intense suffering, they died. How, especially when we are in our extremity, can we tell the difference between the spiritual message we desperately want God to give us and our own desperate feelings? This is a question that I believe has no reliable answer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Church leaders and ordinary members are always wrong. Quite often they get it right. But we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that this process of discerning the meaning of spiritual communication is not an easy thing to master. And if Joseph Smith struggled with it too, then we shouldn’t feel too bad when we misunderstand.
In my own life, I figure I’ve been right about half the time, which isn’t a very good track record. Maybe that’s why I don’t trust my feelings much anymore. They’ve betrayed me too often. So I’m a bit gun-shy.
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A few years ago, I wrote an essay2 for Dialogue in which I described a rather impressive spiritual manifestation that I shared with two other people—my missionary companion and the investigator we were teaching. At the time of the experience and in that essay, I interpreted the manifestation to be a confirmation of the truth of “everything” about Mormonism. But since then I’ve learned a great deal more about what “everything” entails. I’ve had to scale back my interpretation to the actual context in which the manifestation occurred. I can say now only that it confirmed to me that Joseph Smith did indeed experience a vision in which he saw the Father and the Son. But beyond that I’m not sure the manifestation had much relevance. Part of the reason I’ve had to reconsider my interpretation of this experience is that the investigator, who shared the same spiritual outpouring, interpreted it far differently than I did. She eventually determined that it did not communicate anything about the truthfulness of Mormonism and therefore decided not to be baptized.
A final story may provide a good summary for what I am trying to say in this post. About halfway through my mission, we were teaching a woman—let’s call her Frau Tiedemann—whose husband was a tobacco salesman, not a good profession for a Mormon. But his wife was intrigued by our message. One morning, my companion—let’s call him Elder Chatwin—answered the phone. It was Frau Tiedemann, and she was hysterical. She had had some sort of dream. My companion calmed her down a bit and assured her we’d come right over. When we arrived, she told us a strange tale. In the middle of the night, she had had a very vivid dream in which she was surrounded by fire. Her children were screaming for help, but she couldn’t get to them. This woke her, and she sat up in bed. She said a power came over her so that she could not move. Then a voice spoke to her. It said, roughly translated, “Chatwin is right. Watch over your family.” It repeated this same message five times. Then the power left, and she was able to move. She woke her husband up. He was not impressed. He told her it was just the strawberries and cream she’d eaten before going to bed. But she was convinced her children were in mortal danger. We assured her it was probably a spiritual message and had something to do with her children’s eternal welfare. Of course we did. We were missionaries.
Well, Frau Tiedemann decided that she should be baptized. Her husband got scared and refused to hear of it. She never did get baptized. But I’ve thought often about the cryptic message she received in the dead of the night. If the voice, whatever its source, wanted her to be baptized, why didn’t it say, “Chatwin is right. You need to be baptized into the LDS Church.” For whatever reason, the voice gave a message that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. And so it goes. As I’ve considered both my own experiences and those that others describe, I’ve decided that God does not very often give spiritual messages that are absolutely clear and can be interpreted in only one way. Quite often they are nothing more than a strong feeling.
Perhaps there’s a reason for this. Although in Mormonism we tend to speak in terms of certainty, quite often our spiritual knowledge may be far less certain than we assume. And this leaves plenty of room for faith. Maybe in the Church we need to start talking more about faith and belief and less about knowledge. Perhaps we’ve placed far too much emphasis on testimony and haven’t considered carefully enough what we believe. After all, our first article of faith says nothing about sure knowledge. The first principle of the gospel is not certainty; it is faith.
1. Gerald N. Lund, Hearing the Voice of the Lord: Principles and Patterns of Personal Revelation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 8–9.
2. Roger Terry, “Frau Rüster and the Cure for Cognitive Dissonance,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40, no. 3 (2007): 201–10; https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/issues/V40N03.pdf.