Zelophehad’s Daughters

Finding Spiritual Sustenance

Posted by Lynnette

The neoscholastics saw grace as something entirely outside the realm of human consciousness. One participated in the sacraments of the church to receive grace, but this grace was essentially alien and separate from human awareness. This view was sharply critiqued by 20th century theologians who noted that under this framework, it was difficult to see why grace would really matter to anyone. Such an extrinsic understanding of grace, they noted, left people with the view that religious practice was something basically foreign and unconnected to the rest of their lives. Why, if it’s not making any discernable difference in your experience of life, would anyone have any sustained interest in religion?

I find this discussion fascinating because I sometimes find myself asking a kind of reverse question. I think I tend to assume that the workings of grace are (or at least should be) conscious, something I can detect. Yet many, many times I have engaged in religious practices such as prayer, scripture study, and church attendance and felt . . . absolutely nothing. As far as I can tell, doing those things often makes no difference in my life whatsoever. And so I ask: is it possible that these practices could be having an effect of which I am not aware?

I am quite open to the possibility that the answer to this is yes, that engaging in such activities is in fact making some kind of difference even if I cannot always see or feel it. However, that leaves me with a dilemma. Given this possibility, how am I to distinguish between religious practice which is actually helpful, which is doing something spiritually positive, and that which might be classified as nothing but superstition?

This question becomes even more difficult in that I’ve sometimes found that doing the things which are supposed to have some kind of positive effect actually leave me feeling not “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,” but guilt, depression, irritability, alienation, etc. One could certainly interpret this as a need on my part to come at them differently, or even as a test of faith. But one could also make the case that if attending church, for example, is not only not helping me spiritually (at least, as far as I can tell), but seems to actually be having a detrimental effect, the logical thing to do would be to stop, and to seek out alternative practices which do bring me more of a sense of peace and spiritual connection. Yet I don’t know that completely giving up on church attendance during such times is the best solution.

How do you decide what’s spiritually good for you?

31 Responses to “Finding Spiritual Sustenance”

  1. 1.

    I tend to get strange reactions when I brink up topics like spiritual thermodynamics. People say how dare you pollute spiritual things with the real world? Or how dare you pollute the real world with spiritual things?

    Now as far as church attendance goes, I would sayin such a case the benefit depends far more on how one attends church, than it does on whether one attends or not. For example:

    “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. ” (Matt 18:20)

    The question is not whether the spirit is there, but rather how one goes about participating in it. That generally requires some personal effort and concentration in my experience. Communion is not automatic.

  2. 2.

    I think you are raising a great question. We have the “Sunday School” answers, but I’m not convinced those always work for everyone.

    I just finished reading The Feminie Face of God yesterday. . The authors interviewed hundreds of women in order to learn about women’s spirituality. The women ranged from a Benedictine nun to Native American elder to former drug addict to Orthodox Jew and on and on. What was striking to me in the stories of the women was how varied their paths were. Some engaged in serious religious practice in convents and found their inner voices telling them to search somewhere else. Some had spontaneous awakenings. Some came to find spiritual awakening through religious practice and others by leaving it.

    I have found in my own life that sometimes it’s hard for me to trust myself to know what’s good for me. Growing up under the patriarchal system of the church that gives women little voice left me feeling that I as a woman had nothing to say, even about my own path.

    I think the first step for me is to trust myself to know when something is spiritually good for me. The next step is to keep trying things, practicing, and seeking until I find it.

  3. 3.

    Such a good question, Lynnette. In looking back over my life, it’s clear to me that I struggled for far too long to make certain church programs–seminary, Institute, and HPFE–work, and now I wish I’d jumped ship years earlier. But I’ve gone up and down with sacrament meeting, prayer, and scripture study as well. I’d have to give them a thumbs-up on the whole, but at times, for a variety of reasons, they make me feel worse. What then? Try harder? Raise the whip of self-flagellation? Or give up? Or, if you’re like me, alternate between these alternatives and give yourself spiritual whiplash?

    I think it’s a very tough question to what extent we ought to trust, or mistrust, our own feelings in the context of faith. On the one hand, I know if I limit myself to the immediately comfortable and gratifying, in spirituality or in any other endeavor, I’ll never grow. On the other, at some point it’s insane to keep banging the square peg of oneself into various round holes.

    Mark Butler, I have to admit that spiritual thermodynamics sound quite jarring to me. I’m all in favor of science, but precisely because of its reductive terminology, I don’t think it’s very well suited to describe the religious life.

  4. 4.

    “How do you decide what’s spiritually good for you?

    This is an interesting question, but I find it problematic in that it assumes a passive worldview — one in which we are being acted upon.

    My answer to the above question is that something is as spiritually good for you as you make it. It is not the external world that determines our spirituality, but it is we who determine our own spirituality by the way we choose to respond to the external world. For what is spirituality but the direction of our will?

    I believe that for all X, if X is having a spiritually detrimental effect, it is because you are choosing to respond to X in a spiritually detrimental way.

    And now a brief tangent to explain an objection that I foresee coming: given that X includes all things, it is indeed possible for something such as a dark rock concert to have a spiritually positive effect on you — assuming, of course, that you choose (somehow) to respond to it in a spiritually positive way. But this does not mean that all external things are then spiritually neutral. There is a difference between church and a dark rock concert. That difference, I believe, is in the potential for positively spiritual responses.

    The point I’m making here is in reference to this line:

    “But one could also make the case that if attending church, for example, is not only not helping me spiritually (at least, as far as I can tell), but seems to actually be having a detrimental effect, the logical thing to do would be to stop, and to seek out alternative practices which do bring me more of a sense of peace and spiritual connection.”

    I don’t think you can make such a case, at least not for church. It seems to me that the logical thing to do would be to start responding to the invitations involved in church attendance — invitations, to begin with, that include multiple opportunities to be of service to others.

  5. 5.

    Eve,

    Oh, I have to stick up for scientific metaphors in a religious setting – I don’t think that the terminology is any more reductive than the terminology in many other fields. On the other hand, metaphors and parables – even good ones – are only useful to the extent that the audience has a background in the metaphor, so scientific metaphors may not always be a useful or appropriate teaching tool.

  6. 6.

    As far as self-trust goes, I think that Mormonism could not grow without promoting robust self-trust. Only by advocating self-trust can the church lead converts and members to participate due to their personal religious experiences. Advocating real self-trust does lead to a diversity of decisions and beliefs, but I think that is a necessary consequence. As Emerson says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

    I also have to say that I am very suspicious of those who try to place the quality of one’s church experience soley on the individual. I think such an approach ignores the social aspects of our spiritual life and experiences. Why even go if the quality of your experience comes only from yourself? It also deflects justified criticism by placing all the responsibility on the individual member.

  7. 7.

    What then? Try harder? Raise the whip of self-flagellation? Or give up? Or, if you’re like me, alternate between these alternatives and give yourself spiritual whiplash?

    When I have faced painful situations at church, those are the times I just endure. I go because I know that is what God wants me to do. I go because that is part of what I have covenanted to do. And, invariably, things have gotten better. I believe in the power of persistence in the face of pain. (Eve, I think this gets a little to your post about submission.)

    I also have to say that I am very suspicious of those who try to place the quality of one’s church experience soley on the individual. I think such an approach ignores the social aspects of our spiritual life and experiences. Why even go if the quality of your experience comes only from yourself? It also deflects justified criticism by placing all the responsibility on the individual member.

    This is a valid point. However, in the end, we do go to church because of the authority and ordinances in that institution that are given to bind us to God. The social aspect adds potential for richness and strength, but, in the end, we are still ultimately doing these things for God and His glory, not just for our own benefit. We glorify Him by our consistent obedience. In that sense, I think the Sunday School answers provide clear direction of what we can and should do even when we feel no direct or immediate benefit.

    At least in my personal experience, I find great strength simply by not giving up, by sticking to commitments if for no other reason because I have made those commitments. Even if I don’t feel an immediate reward at the time, I feel over the long haul, I have been blessed in various ways. I think spirituality has a big-picture element that is easy to lose sight of when things get tough. At least it is that way for me. :)

  8. 8.

    I also agree that placing all responsibility for spirituality on the individual is dangerous. While I certainly think we need to take personal responsibility for our own spirituality, going to church activities with an attitude of “I will enjoy them” does not enhance my enjoyment of church activities–too many people makes me stressed, and until I learn how to change this deep-seated proclivity, I will not enjoy church activities on most occasions.

    Johnny is also right to point out that such a focus on the individual also ignores the ways in which communities need to take responsibility for their own spiritual milieu.

    Anyway, what I think is interesting about Lynnette’s original post is the following question: what happens when I go to church directly seeking positive spiritual experiences, and those spiritual experiences don’t follow? What should one do when one *has* taken personal spiritual responsibility (i.e. I go to church and deliberately try to have positive spiritual experiences), and the positive spiritual experiences just dont’ come?

  9. 9.

    Eve (#3),

    I see it a lot like the application of mathematics to music, except more so. Musical composition is all about creativity, and yet to sound beautiful (at least in a classical sense) it must both be in accordance with certain natural laws as well as implement a higher order of the same. A vacuum cleaner is not very musical.

    I think most people rebel at the association of science and spirituality because science has yet to learn to deal with reality of free will and creativity. There is no morality without choice. The science of today will have none of it. However, the science of seven hundred years ago had much of value to say about the relationship between nature and morality.

    That is one of the things that makes Aquinas a joy to read. The free will aspects do the same for Ockham, at least when the proper selection is made. Both knew more of the science of spirituality than any contemporary secularist – the division between science and spirituality is so deep in the modern psyche that we hardly know where to start.

    Even in our religion, a statement like that of Joseph Smith to the effect that we can be saved no faster than we gain [divine] knowledge, tends to strike many of us as an outright heresy. How dare he exalt knowledge, any kind of knowledge, to the rank of piety?

  10. 10.

    Katya, very fair point. It’s certainly true that different metaphors are going to reach different people, and scientific metaphors are likely to be especially meaningful to the scientists among us. If that’s the language in which someone comes to understand something about the gospel, I certainly shouldn’t stand in her way.

    I do tend to get suspicious of scientific discourse in religious settings when it’s invoked under the common-sense assumption of our age that science is the ultimate “hard” reality, an assumption betrayed in efforts to elevate faith to the status of science. This tactic is probably most common in discussions of the Word of Wisdom–science has proved that it’s good for you! (If we take revelation seriously, didn’t we already know that?)

    The contrast Mark mentions between the spiritual and the real is the kind of thing I have in mind. (And I don’t know that Mark was endorsing that contrast since he was quoting his hypothetical interlocutors). But for us, isn’t the spiritual the last word in reality?

    That’s all I meant to say.

  11. 11.

    s, I’ve had that experience too, fairly often in fact. I think some of Boyd K. Packer’s comments on the spirit (which I confess I’m too lazy to look up right now…maybe later if they still seem relevant to the discussion!) are fascinating; he quotes the scripture in John that compares the spirit to the wind and says that we can’t ever promise a congregation or a class that they will have a marvelous spiritual experience because the spirit is ultimately not for us to command or control. I suspect we’ve all had the experience of feeling the spirit very powerfully on one occasion and feeling it much less powerfully, or not at all, on other occasions that, for all intents and purposes, seem identical. (One day streetboarding at the end of my mission I had a very powerful spiritual experience, one of the most powerful of my life, and for a long time I felt guilty and wondered what was wrong with me that so much of my mission I hadn’t had spiritual experiences like that; most days were fairly routine, many were exhausting and discouraging. Now I’m inclined to think that’s just how life on this earth works. No matter how hard we try, it’s never going to be one continuous spiritual high.)

    It does seem fundamentally antithetical to our beliefs about God to think we could ultimately control our spiritual experiences. In my view, at best we can put ourselves in likely positions, but spiritual gifts are a grace of God, to be given by the will of God.

    Eric, I don’t think it’s we, but the grace of Christ, that changes us at the very core. And that change is a long, long process; often, simply because we are human, we aren’t going to be in the right place, we aren’t going to be capable of doing more than going through the motions. But isn’t it more helpful to see going through the motions as a beginning, as a way of aligning the heart, than it is to reject them as meaningless? Isn’t that what spiritual disciplines such as prayer and scripture study are all about?

  12. 12.

    “What should one do when one *has* taken personal spiritual responsibility (i.e. I go to church and deliberately try to have positive spiritual experiences), and the positive spiritual experiences just don’t come?”

    It’s not what you do, it’s who you are. Going through the motions is meaningless if you’re heart is not fully in the right place. We must change ourselves at the very core.

  13. 13.

    And what if my heart is in the right place and the spiritual experiences don’t come?

  14. 14.

    Eric, hmm. About all I can say is that your paradigm for change doesn’t ring at all true to my experience. I think we’d agree that there is a process involved–we talk about the repentance process, people visit their bishops for weeks or months, people go to AA for years and years. But it seems arbitrary and reductively binary to reserve the label “change” for the final moment of that process–and I don’t think our wants and desires are ever that simply and clearly delineated into “now I don’t want to change–now I do!” Most of us don’t and do want to change simultaneously, I think. And change doesn’t stop being necessary even when the sin stops–a new way of being has to be sustained and strengthened and temptations to relapse overcome. If anything, I’d put your moment of change on the midpoint of the journey. We have to practice a new way of being and let it become part of who we are, let it take hold. And that takes time.

  15. 15.

    “The spirit is ultimately not for us to command or control.”

    Amen, Eve and Lynnette.

  16. 16.

    On the issue of change, I’m with Augustine: “Lord make me pure, but not yet!” ;) Seriously, I wonder whether in mortality at least, we have the capacity to ever want something with our whole hearts, without any inner conflict or ambivalence.

  17. 17.

    Eve, I haven’t ever heard those thoughts by Packer, but thanks for sharing them. I think it’s true that things of the spirit are often mysterious and that’s just how life currently is. As you say, gifts of the spirit are contingent on the grace of God, which is why I don’t have a sufficient explanation for the kind of scenario I outlined. God usually does not see fit to explain how He bestows His spirit to me. :)

  18. 18.

    S, what is a “spiritual experience”? And what is the result of such an experience?

    Eve, I most wholeheartedly disagree that change takes a long time. What takes a long time is for people to make the decision to change. You can choose to be humble (or choose to let grace humble you, if that’s the way you prefer to say it) right now. This very instant. There’s nothing stopping you but yourself.

    There’s nothing wrong with going through the motions. I agree that it’s a good place to start. What’s wrong is assuming that the motions are the end of our responsibility and not the beginning.

  19. 19.

    I find it problematic in that it assumes a passive worldview — one in which we are being acted upon.

    Hmm. When it comes to the workings of the Spirit, I actually do think we are acted upon; it’s not something that’s ultimately under our control. Which isn’t to say that I’m advocating total passivity; I think there’s a lot we can do to put ourselves in places of greater receptivity, so that if God does talk, we’ll be more likely to hear it. But that’s as far as we can go; in the end, we can’t force it.

    I really like that scripture Eve mentioned about the Spirit blowing where it listeth. That resonates a lot with my experience. There are certainly times when I’ve felt spiritually distant because of my own choices. But I don’t think I’m the only person to have experienced “dry spells” where even when you’re sincerely trying, you feel spiritually disconnected. I don’t know why it works that way sometimes, but I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that it’s entirely the fault of the individual.

  20. 20.

    Eric, I was using it in the broadest sense: positive effects of the spirit. (That was how Lynnette was discussing the spirit in her original post.)

  21. 21.

    I think the first step for me is to trust myself to know when something is spiritually good for me.

    I like that point. I often struggle with being overly skeptical about my own experience, instead of simply listening to it and seeing what it might be telling me. I’ve found that when I can back away from whatever ideas I have about how spirituality is “supposed” to work, and look at what is actually happening in my life, it can be quite illuminating.

    I think it’s a very tough question to what extent we ought to trust, or mistrust, our own feelings in the context of faith. On the one hand, I know if I limit myself to the immediately comfortable and gratifying, in spirituality or in any other endeavor, I’ll never grow.

    That’s really the dilemma I’m struggling with. How much credence should I give to my feelings? (And needless to say, stuff like depression makes this even more complicated.) As Johnny pointed out, personal religious experience really is a bedrock principle of our faith. We’re taught to pay attention to it, to trust it, to even at times make important decisions based on it. And that’s an emphasis I actually quite like. But I know too well that it’s far from infallible.

    I think also where I sometimes have a difficult time is in differentiating stuff that’s hard in a character-building kind of way, and stuff that’s hard in a destructive way. Though like M&M, I think I usually end up evaluating things in terms of the long haul. Overall, I think church has been a good thing in my life, and remembering that can make it easier during the rough patches. (Though there have also been times when I do think the right deicison has been to take a break.)

  22. 22.

    Lynnette,

    I agree that the Spirit acts upon us, but generally only with our active participation. If one does not pay attention, for example, one rarely feels the spirit. Sometimes simply pondering on what the speaker is saying, bringing related spiritual things to memory, is all that is necessary to bring the spirit in. In my experience, one must maintain a running mental commentary on everything being said and how it relates to you and others to bring in a fulness of the spirit.

  23. 23.

    This is a fun discussion, people. Lots of interesting and complex ideas going on here. So much so that I’m afraid my responses will be inevitably incomplete and unclear, no matter how much I say. So as not to come off as too preachy, I’ll just keep it short anyways.

    Lynette, this needs much more explanation, but let me just say that I think that the problem itself is the failure to recognize that the power to change the problem lies within our own hands.

    Eve, I think I agree with everything you say in #17. The change I’m talking about is the new way of being. The type of change I’m talking about is not a change of behavior (though I think that behavior follows) but a change of heart. You can change your heart right now, if you want.

    I agree with Kaimi’s agreement that the spirit itself is not what we control. But what we do control is how we choose to respond to the spirit. And it’s the sum of those responses that constitutes our spirituality.

    Lynnette, I believe we have the capacity to really want it. That is, if we really want it. There’s no evidence that we don’t.

  24. 24.

    …One participated in the sacraments of the church to receive grace, but this grace was essentially alien and separate from human awareness.

    I don’t want to disagree with you too strenuously Lynnette, but I think that describes exactly the people I know who are most blessed by grace. They are so un-selfconscious that the goodness of their lives isn’t something they even think about.

    The one thing that has never let me down in terms of spiritual sustenance is serving. Whenever we’ve moved, I’ve made it a point to find out where the really old members of the ward lived. I’ve found that reading the newspaper or playing checkers in a rest home is as good as prayer, and it makes the rest of our church practice more satisfying.

  25. 25.

    I think that the problem itself is the failure to recognize that the power to change the problem lies within our own hands.

    That’s fascinating, Eric; I’m coming from quite a different perspective on this one. I think that we Mormons in particular seem vulnerable to overestimating the power of the will, to buying into the idea that if we just try hard enough, we can do anything (even perfect ourselves). Often I think our challenge is to let go of the desire to be in control of it all, and to acknowledge that we can’t do it on our own.

    Mark Butler, I agree; that’s what I was trying to get at earlier in noting that while we can’t force the Spirit, we are responsible for the effort we’re making to listen.

    Mark IV, I really like that observation about un-selfconsciousness. The problem with the view I was describing (admittedly without offering much detail) was that grace ended up seeming kind of like magic; you were told that something mystical was happening, and you had to take that completely on faith because there was no way to detect it. I think that’s a quick way to turn religion into mumbo-jumbo. But you’ve given me another angle from which to think about whether consciousness of grace is necessarily a good thing.

  26. 26.

    I think this from Elder Bednar’s most recent conference talk might be relevant to several comments that have been made.

    “As we gain experience with the Holy Ghost, we learn that the intensity with which we feel the Spirit’s influence is not always the same. Strong, dramatic spiritual impressions do not come to us frequently. Even as we strive to be faithful and obedient, there simply are times when the direction, assurance, and peace of the Spirit are not readily recognizable in our lives. In fact, the Book of Mormon describes faithful Lamanites who “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not” (3 Nephi 9:20).

    I appreciate the fact that he acknowledges that we don’t go around having spiritual experiences all of the time, even when we are trying to do what’s right. That said, he still reminds us that there is much we can still work on and hope for and aim toward by being more aware of when we are doing things that draw us away from the Spirit.

    I recognize we are fallen men and women living in a mortal world and that we might not have the presence of the Holy Ghost with us every second of every minute of every hour of every day. However, the Holy Ghost can tarry with us much, if not most, of the time–and certainly the Spirit can be with us more than it is not with us. As we become ever more immersed in the Spirit of the Lord, we should strive to recognize impressions when they come and the influences or events that cause us to withdraw ourselves from the Holy Ghost.

    Taking “the Holy Spirit for [our] guide” (D&C 45:57) is possible and is essential for our spiritual growth and survival in an increasingly wicked world. Sometimes as Latter-day Saints we talk and act as though recognizing the influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives is the rare or exceptional event. We should remember, however, that the covenant promise is that we may always have His Spirit to be with us. This supernal blessing applies to every single member of the Church who has been baptized, confirmed, and instructed to “receive the Holy Ghost.”

    It’s a process, to be sure. I found his talk to be comforting and motivating at the same time. For me, this all gets back to the concept of consistency and commitment — of covenants and hope in the promises God has made to us.

  27. 27.

    I’ve found that when I can back away from whatever ideas I have about how spirituality is “supposed” to work, and look at what is actually happening in my life, it can be quite illuminating.

    Nice thought. I think it’s important to recognize that the Spirit works differently with everyone, too. I know people who can just pray and get answers. Poof! They know what to do! Poof! They feel the Atonement working immediately. The Spirit rarely, rarely (if ever) works that way with me. If I ever ask for specific help, guidance, answers, etc., they unfold. They evolve. They distill. I’m too analytical to just “get an answer” and run. I have to try it on for a while to see how it feels. To try to describe what “it just feels right” feels like can be difficult because it can vary.

  28. 28.

    Sorry, just reading through lots of great thoughts and wanting to share what pops into my mind.

    Seriously, I wonder whether in mortality at least, we have the capacity to ever want something with our whole hearts, without any inner conflict or ambivalence.

    It is indeed so very difficult. To me, that’s what consecration really means. But it is all a process. I don’t think we can just wake up one morning and say, “OK, my heart is heaven’s now and forever!” It’s a decision we have to make over and over again…which allows the Spirit to change our hearts, which makes it easier to give our hearts. But it’s not a one-time thing.

    I liked Elder Eyring’s talk when he shares one specific experience when he prayed most of the night to get an answer…and finally, after what appears to have been hours, he just gave up his will and said, “OK, I don’t care what I want anymore. I want what Thou dost want.” It was then that the answer came. To me, it illustrated how very difficult it can be to really, really give up our will. That said, I think it also illustrates that it IS possible to do it. :)

    I’m also reminded of Elder Maxwell who said that God has given us everything, so giving Him things like our means or our time aren’t really giving Him things that aren’t already His anyway. The only thing we truly have to give Him is our will.
    Neal A. Maxwell, “Remember How Merciful the Lord Hath Been,” Ensign, May 2004, 44

    Good grief. Why on earth am I trying to paraphrase Elder Maxwell?

    “[A]s you submit your wills to God, you are giving Him the only thing you can actually give Him that is really yours to give. Don’t wait too long to find the altar or to begin to place the gift of your wills upon it! No need to wait for a receipt; the Lord has His own special ways of acknowledging.”

    “In striving for ultimate submission, our wills constitute all we really have to give God anyway. The usual gifts and their derivatives we give to Him could be stamped justifiably “Return to Sender,” with a capital S. Even when God receives this one gift in return, the fully faithful will receive “all that [He] hath” (D&C 84:38). What an exchange rate!”

    I liked this also, as a reminder again that it’s all a process:

    “Spiritual submissiveness is not accomplished in an instant, but by the incremental improvements and by the successive use of stepping-stones. Stepping-stones are meant to be taken one at a time anyway. Eventually our wills can be “swallowed up in the will of the Father” as we are “willing to submit … even as a child doth submit to his father” (see Mosiah 15:7; Mosiah 3:19). “
    Neal A. Maxwell, “Consecrate Thy Performance,” Ensign, May 2002, 36

    Sigh. I miss Elder Maxwell….

  29. 29.

    Fascinating set of posts.

    Personally, I’m reminded of the discussion regarding the gifts of the spirit in D&C 46:13-14, which states that while it is given “to some . . . to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, “to others it is [only] given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful. ”

    This passage has always struck me. It seems to suggest that some people are actually given greater access to the spirit than others, and that, as part of some divine plan, some of us are instead tasked with the obligation of simply relying on the witness given to those around us. This seems awfully unfair. It would be easy to look at such a scenario and conclude that God loves some of His children more than others.

    There was a sister in my MTC group that was the embodiment of verse 13, in that she always seemed to be having these grand spiritual experiences at times when the rest of us were struggling to feel anything at all. This began bugging me–after all, what was I doing wrong?–so I approached my branch president about it. In more general terms, I asked him why it was that I was able to feel a strong spirit during some meetings but then feel absolutely nothing during others. His response was apt. He said that one of the fundamental purposes of this existence is to condition our souls to crave the good, to cherish the spirit. This is only possible, he explained, if we have sufficient experience with its absence.

    I accept his response. It makes sense to me. It still doesn’t seem to address one of the questions raised in this discussion, though, which is why some can feel the spirit more often than others. I don’t really have a clear answer for that, other than to fall back on the truism that God knows each of our souls individually, and that he gives us each according to our own individual needs. For whatever reason, it seems that there are some of us who need to feel the absence of the spirit as part of our own testing and refinement.

    Getting back to the original posting regarding feeling (or not feeling) the spirit during certain meetings, I think there are a number of things possibly going on in such scenarios. First, to the extent that God is actively involved in that feeling (or lack thereof), it is quite possibly an extension of the above. Second, I don’t think that we can also discount the possibility in such cases that the meeting itself simply isn’t that good. I hate to inject a degree of cynicism into this, but there are times where the talks simply aren’t earnest or well thought out, or where teacher or class truly aren’t playing their parts in creating a rewarding class discussion.

  30. 30.

    I’ve found that taking an active part in the church meetings helps when going to church causes pain. When I am play the organ in sacrament meeting and go straight to the nursery I have less time to brood about talks and Relief Society lessons about families and motherhood, which feel like slaps in the face. At the end of the church meetings I feel like I have contributed to the community and that I have been nourished by the love of the nursery children who don’t care that I do not have children of my own. These positive feelings make the negative feelings of disappointment and emptiness ache less.

  31. 31.

    M&M, I like that point about this being a process, and not an all-at-once deal. It kind of goes back to my post on original sin; I think that in this life, we’re always going to struggle somewhat with those internal divisions. I’m also thinking that spiritual growth often isn’t very easy to see while we’re in the middle of it.

    Thanks for mentioning that scripture on gifts of the spirit, RT; I also find that intriguing, and perhaps helpful for those who can’t easily say that they “know.” I really like your branch bresident’s suggestion that we need experiences with the absence of the spirit. That would seem to fit well with what we believe about mortality–that there’s something we gain from being away from the immediate presence of God.

    That’s a good point, Fideline. I’ve also found that I do a lot better with church meetings when I feel like I’m able to contribute something. It’s interesting how these dynamics happen. Sometimes I’ve been in wards where I felt I was seen as a problem, a potential service project perhaps, and that made it hard to go to church. But just little things–like someone saying that they enjoyed a comment I made–can make a real difference in giving me a sense that I too have a place in the community. (Which is something I’m trying to remember more often in my interactions with others.)

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