Zelophehad’s Daughters

“You must do what you feel is right, of course.”

Posted by Lynnette

The Gospel of Star Wars tells us repeatedly of the importance of trusting your feelings. (If you don’t recognize my title quote, it’s what Obi-Wan says to Luke in A New Hope, when Luke is deciding whether to come to Alderaan). Qui-Gon instructs Anakin at one point, “Feel. Don’t think.” Even those on the Dark Side of the Force recognize feelings as a way of discerning truth; Vader tells Luke that if he will “search his feelings,” he will recognize the truth of what Vader is telling him about his parentage.

For those of you who may be unbelievers when it comes to Star Wars, numerous scriptures also tell us to pay attention to our feelings. Nephi rebukes Laman and Lemuel, “ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words.” (1 Nephi 17:45) According to the Doctrine & Covenants, if you ask God about something which is right, “you shall feel that it is right.” (D&C 9:8) And when people describe getting answers to prayers, they frequently use the language of feeling.

I’m one who tends to go with what I “feel right” about, both in terms of what I believe, and when it comes to making life decisions. Yet I can see some real limitations when it comes to trusting feelings.

For one thing, I think that it’s far too easy when encountering the unfamiliar, the strange, the unsettling, to mistake those feelings for “wrongness.” I think this might explain why some Mormons report feeling a “bad spirit” when visiting other churches, for example. And conversely, if something feels comfortable and familiar, it’s easy to assume that it must therefore be right.

When I was a teenager and first explicitly thinking about feminism, there was something that really bothered me. I noticed that I was personally uncomfortable with women in authority; it just “felt right” to have men in charge. The idea of ordained women was actually somewhat disturbing to me. However, my feelings about this have changed quite a bit as I’ve spent a lot of time around ordained women in other faiths, seen them leading congregations, etc. The question I have to ask, then, is what credence I should give to either my earlier sense that such a thing would be not quite right, or to my current sense that it’s not a bad thing to do.

I’ve been thinking about a comment that Jessawhy made on another thread here:

It doesn’t feel right.
In my heart, it doesn’t feel right that women are subjected to men. That God only reveals his will to men.
If that’s really it, why can’t he change our hearts so that it feels right? I’ve asked Him to, but it hasn’t happened.
Maybe I’ll get there someday, but not today.

I find myself in a similar situation. On a very basic level, I object to current Church teaching and practice regarding gender simply because it feels profoundly wrong to me. Yet I can’t help being aware that my feelings and perceptions have been shaped by a culture which deeply values egalitarianism, and I have to ask myself what role that might be playing in my views. (This isn’t just an issue of feminist convictions, of course; I find myself asking similar questions about many of my deeply held beliefs, including even my belief in God.)

To what extent should we trust what we feel?

14 Responses to ““You must do what you feel is right, of course.””

  1. 1.

    At the risk of being cliche, I think we should trust our feelings a little and pray a lot. By that “a little” I don’t mean “little.” I do think we should trust our feelings but we should also be thoughtful and prayerful about what our feelings tell us.

    On of my objections to Disney’s “Mulan II*” was that the message and refrain (literally; they made a song of it) was “Be true to your heart.” As if no one’s heart has ever led them astray. Don’t ignore your heart but don’t follow it blindly either.

    *(Spare yourself. Don’t watch it. Seriously.)

  2. 2.

    …I think that it’s far too easy when encountering the unfamiliar, the strange, the unsettling, to mistake those feelings for “wrongness.”

    This is a really good point, and for me, it gets at the heart of the matter, which is learning to discern between that which feels uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar vs. that which feels uncomfortable because it is not of God. I think this is why Christ gave us another test in addition to feelings — “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Feelings are an important part of our discerning ability, but not the entire package (prayer is another piece, as mentioned by PDOE). In some instances, it takes time to discern if a thing is right or wrong or somewhere in between. It can be a process. And I think it is critical not to dismiss uncomfortable feelings until the discerning process is complete. Human nature, however, tends to make us immediately dismissive of unpleasant emotions because accepting and allowing them can lead to change and change can be sooooo uncomfortable.

  3. 3.

    Women aren’t subjected to men and God doesn’t only reveal his will to men. But that’s beside the point right now.

    We have to rely on our feelings because our brains alone can’t discern all truth. There is no reasoning that can resolve the question of whether or not a male-only priesthood is acceptable to God, for example, or, more fundamentally and more importantly, whether God even exists. But hopefully we can learn to distinguish between feelings that originate within us and those that constitute communication through the Spirit. I think with lots of practice this becomes easier, but I don’t know if anyone gets to the point that they can be 100% sure all the time (though there are some who talk and behave as if everything they feel is the Spirit), so humility is called for. I think that walking in relative darkness and going on faith is an important part of our mortal experience.

  4. 4.

    In situations where you’re choosing among things that are all good, you have some leeway to listen to your heart.

    For example, you know that serving others is a good and true principle, but you get to choose whether to serve by doing meals on wheels, coaching kids’ sports, teaching English as a Second Language, etc. A particular way of serving may feel uncomfortable to you, but you’re not required to overcome that feeling just because service is a true principle. My friend who thinks ESL is the imposition of cultural hegemony doesn’t have to serve by teaching ESL; she can serve in other ways her whole life and be just fine.

    Or as another example, you get to listen to your heart when choosing whom to marry. Rule out the “bad boys,” of course, but amongst the good guys you can pick tall or short, nerd or jock, bearded or cleanshaven, etc. You don’t have to marry a tall, cleanshaven jock if that’s not who appeals to you…even if he is a perfectly good, worthy guy by objective standards.

    The issue is whether religion fits in this category of choosing among things that are all good. Rule out the faiths that teach their followers to do evil (I’m not sure if there are any like that, but if there are, let’s rule them out). Choosing only amongst the religions that teach their followers to love God and do good, do you get a free choice to pick the one that appeals to you most? Would sticking with a religion where you feel certain practices are profoundly wrong be like my friend teaching ESL against her profound feelings that it is morally wrong, but doing it just because service is a true principle? Would it be like marrying a guy you don’t love, just because he is good and worthy?

    Or would it be a choice between more-good/more-true/LDS versus less-good/less-true/non-LDS?

  5. 5.

    I do think we should pay attention to our feelings, though I’m not sure we should always trust them.

    We have to rely on our feelings because our brains alone can’t discern all truth.

    I agree that it’s important to apply multiple epistemological approaches as checks on each other. Which is why I think it equally works the other way: we have to rely on our brains because our feelings alone can’t discern all truth. Our feelings alone can’t tell us whether a male-only priesthood is acceptable to God, for example (and the fact that people have so many different convictions about this, based on feeling, should give us pause regarding its ultimate utility).

    But hopefully we can learn to distinguish between feelings that originate within us and those that constitute communication through the Spirit. I think with lots of practice this becomes easier, but I don’t know if anyone gets to the point that they can be 100% sure all the time.

    What I wonder is, exactly what is involved in practicing discerning between the Spirit and our own feelings? Can it be anything other than thought? The implication is that reason plays a role even then.

    Obviously, reasoning through an issue like male-only priesthood is not likely to arrive at something we can call “definitive truth.” But this alone isn’t cause to abort the enterprise of investigating the issue from multiple angles and refining our models and their implications.

  6. 6.

    (As a side note, what is the difference between feeling and thought, and are they always interdependent?)

  7. 7.

    Relying on my feelings can be a dangerous thing– especially when making decisions. I have anxiety issues that basically take over if I try to analyze my feelings (does this feel right? does this feel wrong? does this feel wrong because I’m too afraid to say that it’s right? am I making myself feel that it’s right? etc.). So I have come to learn that God speak to me mostly through logic and thoughts. Which, as Kiskilili mentioned– I think thoughts and feelings are largely intertwined, but for me, I just like to think things out, which are sometimes my feelings. But when I wait to “feel” something, I can’t discern what are feelings, what is the spirit, what is anxiety, etc.

    I read some blog (can’t remember where, sorry) where they said, like learning styles, the spirit has a learning style: some feel the spirit, some work it out in their heads, some actually hear or see things (alma the younger, joseph smith). So, for some, they may be able to work it all out through feelings. Some have to logic it out, etc. It just depends on what works best for you. Often the hardest part is just figuring out how the spirit speaks to you. I still haven’t completely figured that out yet.

  8. 8.

    I must say I am flattered at the quote in the original message, I wonder if this post is to help me learn how others balance feelings and thoughts (if, Kiskilili, there is some level of independence).
    As for feelings, I haven’t always trusted them, so for me, it’s a good change. In the past I’ve probably been guilty of “following blindly” without considering the reasons or implications of my choices. However, I’m still trying to gauge where this new process is taking me. Although I do feel some angst (see quote above) with doctrines of the church as I understand them, I have to admit that the life I have as a result of blind obedience, is pretty wonderful. I guess that goes to the “by their fruits” part of the equation.
    I’m glad I chose to follow the church and keep myself chaste, marry in the temple, get an education, have children, attend church (which isn’t always wonderful, don’t get me wrong). I’m even glad that I stay home with my children instead of working (which is also why my brain values a forum like this so much).
    Essentially my feelings are contradictory when it comes to church doctrines. So back to what Tam said.

    learning to discern between that which feels uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar vs. that which feels uncomfortable because it is not of God. I think this is why Christ gave us another test in addition to feelings — “by their fruits ye shall know them.”

    So I don’t know why doctrines of the church, as I see them, (subjection of women, God’s will revealed to men, etc.) are uncomfortable to me now when they haven’t been before, in fact my path has brought me great happiness. Are they unfamiliar? no. Not of God? possibly. Or, something I need more help understanding . . .?

  9. 9.

    Kiskilili: Which is why I think it equally works the other way: we have to rely on our brains because our feelings alone can’t discern all truth.

    True.

    Our feelings alone can’t tell us whether a male-only priesthood is acceptable to God, for example (and the fact that people have so many different convictions about this, based on feeling, should give us pause regarding its ultimate utility).

    I’m not quite sure I get you here.

    Why would you say that people’s different convictions are only based on feelings?

    The “ultimate utility” of what? Of the male-only priesthood or of discerning spiritual truth through feelings? If the former, I don’t see how diversity of opinion on a certain subject has any bearing on its utility. If the latter, well, what else have you got?

    What I wonder is, exactly what is involved in practicing discerning between the Spirit and our own feelings?

    As a concrete example, say that while at Church out of the blue you get the idea/feeling that you should approach a certain sister and ask if there’s anything you can help her with. You act on the impression and it turns out that she really needed some help that you were uniquely suited to offer and tells you that you were a godsend. That would be evidence (though inconclusive—everything in this life is inconclusive) that the feeling you had was from the Spirit and not just from your brain. Note the differences between that feeling and non-spiritual feelings and you’ve learned something. Of course, there will be a lot of noise in the data and uncertainty. Such is life.

    The implication is that reason plays a role even then.

    Reason plays a role in everything. At least it should.

    Obviously, reasoning through an issue like male-only priesthood is not likely to arrive at something we can call “definitive truth.” But this alone isn’t cause to abort the enterprise of investigating the issue from multiple angles and refining our models and their implications.

    I agree. I don’t think I suggested otherwise.

  10. 10.

    one word: Truthiness

  11. 11.

    PDOE, I agree that it’s a good idea to be prayerful in evaluating our feelings. I think what’s sometimes made that difficult for me is that the answers I get to prayer often come through feelings–leaving me once again in a position of struggling to discern just what my feelings mean. Which ties in to Tom’s point about the ambiguity involved in listening to the Spirit.

    I really like what Tam says about this being a process. I’ve also found it helpful to give these things time.

    Something that’s occurred to me in reading these comments and thinking more about this is that I personally am more likely to trust positive feelings than negative ones. If I feel peaceful about something, I’m inclined to think it means something. If I feel wrong or unsettled, on the other hand, I’m somewhat less likely to intepret that as a spiritual message of some kind. Learning to not necessarily interpret negative feelings as messages from God has been vital for me in surviving depression–for years I figured that intense feelings of guilt and hopelessness were in fact a spiritual communication of some kind (after all, people in the scriptures get smitten by their consciences!), and it still can be a challenge for me not to automatically jump to that conclusion when such feelings strike. Also, like Tam I’ve found that initial feelings of discomfort can simply signal a reluctance on my part to challenge a familiar way of seeing things and shouldn’t necessarily be intepreted as some sort of spiritual warning.

    But now I’m wondering–is this a legitimate approach to take, or should I be equally skeptical (or trusting) of positive and negative feelings? Hmm. It does seem that the scriptures talk more about the Spirit guiding us to truth and good than warning us away from falsehood and evil (is that a fair reading?). That’s certainly the way I’ve experienced God in my life–not so much telling me what’s wrong as calling me to what’s right. But of course it’s not always that clear-cut. And sometimes positive feelings have misled me, too.

  12. 12.

    Beijing, that’s a helpful reminder that many of our decisions are not between good and bad, but between competing goods. In a lot of situations (such as the example you mention of deciding how to serve), I don’t see that there’s one right answer, and I like your suggestion that one can legitimately listen to one’s heart (so to speak). I agree with you, though, that when you’re talking about religious decisions, things get a bit trickier. You raise some good questions.

    Kiskilili, that’s a fascinating question about the relationship of feeling and thought. Do we ever actually think without feeling playing some role? (And would we even want to?) How are feelings themselves shaped by the ways we label and interpret them?

    cmac, I quite like that idea that we have different learning styles, and one of our challenges is therefore to figure out the ways in which we personally experience God.

    Jessawhy, I’m happy to have flattered you. ;) Actually, I was particularly intrigued by your comment about praying to have your heart changed because of things not feeling right to you. I just don’t know what I think–it’s back to the classic dilemma of God commanding you to do something which you think/feel is morally wrong. Do you pray to have your outlook changed, so that it seems right? Do you question God? I have yet to come up with an answer for myself.

    Tom, I agree that putting things into practice (the John 7:17 approach, I suppose you might call it) is a helpful means of discernment. Of course, one might also point out that once you’ve decided to interpret things through the lens of “this is inspiration,” you’re likely to find confirming evidence–but I realize that you’re putting that forth as a plausible (rather than a definitive) interpretation of events, and I can’t quibble with that. I have to admit that I’ve personally had so many weird experiences both with feeling impressed to do x, and with other people telling me that they were impressed to do x with regards to me, that I’ve maybe ended up more skeptical with regards to such situations than I really need to be.

    Thanks for the link, aws! I hadn’t heard that term before, and I was amused by the Wikipedia entry.

  13. 13.

    I have a bad feeling about this . . .

  14. 14.

    Oh good, I’m glad we’re in agreement, Tom (reason serves as one necessary epistemological check to feeling/the Spirit etc.).

    I didn’t mean to imply that individuals’ convictions about a male-only priesthood are based exclusively in feeling; my phrase was meant as a conditional–even when convictions are based in feeling/spiritual impressions they are nevertheless frequently very different.

    I like your example. The issue, though, reminds me of the criteria given in Deuteronomy for evaluating prophets:

    18:22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

    13:1-3: If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,
    2 And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;
    3 Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

    Obviously these don’t cover all contingencies. What if you can’t tell whether the thing comes to pass (you have no certain independent method for evaluating the legitmacy of the statement–or in this case, the impression)? Ambiguity seems to be the order of the day in this life.

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