Quench Not the Spirit

One of the warnings I heard frequently as a teenager was not to be in an environment which would drive away the Spirit. Inappropriate movies, inappropriate music, friends behaving badly—hang around with any of them, and the Holy Ghost would take off in the other direction. (Also, rumor had it that the Holy Ghost went to bed at midnight, which was why we should be home by then, too.) But when I think about this idea now, I’m a bit confused by it. If the Holy Ghost can’t be in the presence of anything impure or remotely tainted by sin, it’s not going to be much help to us bumbling, imperfect mortals. And if it’s true that it’s most prone to leave in spiritually toxic situations, it seems that it disappears exactly at the time we need it the most.

One of my sisters was in seminary on 9/11, watching news coverage. In response to viewing the horrific events, someone (on the television) uttered a profanity. Her teacher, she reported, commented, “well, there went the Spirit.” I was rather dumbstruck at the idea that the Spirit would be undeterred by acts of terrorism, but flee at the utterance of a profane word. But so often the Spirit we describe seems prim and proper, and completely unable to comprehend the depths of human experience.

Let me be clear—I do think it can be a problem to to watch movies which desensitize you to the value of human life and dignity, or objectify women; or to spend a lot of time at parties consisting of ever escalating drinking games. I do think such things can be spiritually destructive. But it would make more sense to me to say that such situations are problematic because they make it harder for you to hear the Spirit, not because the Spirit is so delicate and fragile that it can’t handle them and won’t stick around. I would hope for a God who can engage us not just when we put on our Sunday best, but also when we find ourselves in more turbulent settings.

I also struggle with what it means to be “worthy” to have the Spirit. I realize that worthiness isn’t supposed to mean perfection—though that’s a topic that deserves a whole post of its own. But even if you define worthiness in terms of doing your best, I don’t know what sense to make of times when I’ve felt the Spirit, given that so often those experiences haven’t come when I was genuinely trying to do the right things, but rather when I was feeling pretty rebellious. Perhaps one way of looking at it is that these experiences have come when I’ve particularly needed them, rather than being something that I earned. (I say that, but I still get frustrated; there are plenty of times when when I’ve felt like I desperately needed some kind of spiritual connection, some kind of answers, and found myself feeling like I was banging my head against the wall.)

And what about the “gift” of the Holy Ghost, versus access to the Holy Ghost? In LDS teachings, of course, you get the former when you’re confirmed, but everyone has access to the latter. But to be honest, I have a hard time seeing the difference between the two on a day-to-day level. In the sacrament prayer, we talk about the Spirit always being with us—but does that mean that the Spirit isn’t always with everyone? Our teachings about the Holy Ghost, I think, allow us to have a God who is corporeal and thus (presumably) in one place, while also, through the third member of the Godhead, able to exist everywhere.

In sum, I’m confused about a lot of things related to Mormon pneumatology. But I’ve also been thinking about 1 Thessalonian 5:19, which tells us to “Quench not the Spirit.” That suggests to me that while we can’t force spiritual experiences,  we do have the agency to reject them; we can’t literally drive the Spirit away, but we can decide to ignore it.


  1. What a great post!

    While not related to feeling the spirit, I had an experience with my therapist a couple of months ago that I think ties in to when you said, “I would hope for a God who can engage us not just when we put on our Sunday best.”

    I was in a stage of therapy where I was very angry with God. Angry for a bad mission, an abusive mission president, and how my life was affected by it currently. My therapist told me to stop praying to God the way I’d always been taught, but to be totally real and honest with Him.

    I remarked to her that if I was “real” with God, I’d probably end up telling Him what a jerk He was, how pissed I was, and it would probably include a few curse words, too. I didn’t know if that’d be, well, right (since it’s a prayer and all).

    My therapist said to me, “Don’t you think God has heard it all?”

    I thought that was really powerful. While I don’t think we should do things that kill our sensitivity to the spirit, perhaps it’d be wise for us to remember that God and the Holy Ghost have seen it all and are probably a lot less likely to be offended by us than we would think. It definitely improved the honesty of my prayers.

  2. Very true. And I’m of the opinion that you can’t really “drive away the spirit” for another person – I think it very much has to do with us and our state of mind/spirit when it comes to feeling the spirit. And I don’t think external things – like a person swearing on the TV, or a child screaming in Sacrament Meeting – have the ability to drive away the spirit unless we allow it to with our judgmental attitudes.

  3. Great points, Lynnette. I particularly like this:

    “Perhaps one way of looking at it is that these experiences have come when I’ve particularly needed them, rather than being something that I earned.”

    Grace, right? That’s the whole idea, is that we don’t have to earn it, that God reaches out to us anyway? If I understand right.

    Also, the line escc liked:

    “I would hope for a God who can engage us not just when we put on our Sunday best.”

    Exactly! This reminds me of a post you wrote a few years ago, “Do You Want to Go to the Celestial Kingdom?” where at least a few commenters were flabbergasted at the question even being raised. I think the idea of the Spirit as “prim and proper,” as you said, and waiting always with bated breath to see if he should run off because someone swears, fits in with an unappealing view of heaven where everything is neat and orderly and real people feel stifled.

  4. Oh, and also, a related comment from fMh last year, by canadacole:

    I’m just tired of hearing that loud laughter “offends the spirit” said like a universal, like going to a party with alcohol offends the spirit or the spirit doesn’t go out after midnight. Can’t I have the spirit even when I’m laughing at something with my big inappropriate laugh? Maybe the Spirit should listen to one of these talks about not being so easily offended.

  5. This post captures so many of the issues I have with feeling the Spirit– it seems like a Catch-22 thing, where one already has to be pretty darn perfect just to have its presence. And I often find it hard to differentiate between the Spirit and emotions (ex. guilt, elation, etc.).

  6. This is fascinating, Lynnette.

    I always assumed that statements like “the Spirit goes to bed at midnight” were entirely tongue-in-cheek; that they were intended as a reminder that it can be easy to cross personal chastity lines if you’re up late makin’ out, so it’s a good rule of thumb to come home early. And I never thought that we could “offend” or “frighten away” the Spirit, despite the fact that LDS rhetoric uses those precise words. (Why didn’t I take it literally?) I thought that these phrases were just ways of describing how deliberate participation in certain activities dulls our own ability to sense the Spirit.

    Maybe this all underscores some of the other conversations we’ve been having here lately – maybe this is another example of vagueness and metaphor facilitating multiple interpretations and understandings of the same cultural and doctrinal narratives?

  7. I think when people say things like “well, there went the spirit” because of someone swearing in response to 9/11 (or similar), they’re offering up a rather damning self-indictment. I mean, I don’t believe for a moment that the spirit would abandon people so in need of comfort because someone (quite appropriately, in my opinion) responded to such horror with a curse word. So what I’m left to believe is that the commentator is confessing his or her own inability to focus on what’s important, but instead dwells so much on petty things that they lose their own spiritual awareness as a result. After all, such pettiness is its own form of sin.

    Perhaps that sounds harsh on my part. I will say that I am not always so willing to dismiss this response to the ugly things in life. If we’re talking about someone responding to certain kinds of language or violence or actions in a film, well I kind of understand that. If what they mean is that for them the presence of those things is so distracting from what is lovely or worthy in the film that the experience lost its ability to uplift or enrich (and by uplift and enrich I don’t just mean in soft and warm fuzzy ways; I think portrayals of very hard things could be uplifting and enriching). I’d be rather a hypocrite for condemning people for that kind of reaction since I won’t see certain movies because of the violence in them. It just leaves me feeling violated and hurt and like something good in me has been forced to hide. So I don’t watch them.

    But there’s a far cry from objecting to certain kinds of behavior or language or whatnot in normal circumstances (film, conversation, art, television, etc.) and objecting to it with no regard to context. And there’s a lot of difference between understanding one’s own sensitivities and what makes it difficult for oneself to seek and find enriching experiences, and dictating what allows for the spirit universally based on those individual tolerances. I couldn’t watch Django Unchained because of my own limitations. But I don’t condemn those who did watch it and found something worthy. Why should my tolerances dictate others’ actions?

    escc, I love your story, too. It reminds me of some of my own realizations about the ways I’ve expected the wrong kinds of perfection of God and others.

  8. Is God more or less powerful than any potential evil or opposition? I think this answer is obvious, but gets shoved aside in escalating good teachings and rhetoric.
    If a curse word is heard in seminary during a world changing news report being listened to live, then there is only the most remote possibility that the spirit would leave the whole class. (That teacher should be thinking about the prophesies of the signs of the times that include people cursing!) If the teacher let a movie like Eddie Murphy Raw be seen and heard, then maybe the spirit would leave.

  9. I also question how a member of the Godhead could be so prone to take offense. I can’t imagine the Spirit ever abandoning anyone.

    Now, I might conceivably put myself in a situation or a state of mind where I am dulled or unable/unwilling to hear spiritual influences, but that’s certainly not going to be because the Spirit has left my side.

  10. I only know one place where it specifically says that we shoo-off the Spirit. In Sec 112 is says the Spirit is grieved and withdraws when we act to gratify our pride, or vain ambition, or exercise control compulsion or dominion.

    Since pretty much everything we do is a nod toward gratifying our pride or our vain ambition, or exercising some kind of control … that might have more to do with the lack of our Spirit than all this other hullaballoo.

    In fact, it is quite perverse to assume that we have to be worthy to have the Spirit with us. Since we are justified BY the Spirit, asking us to be justified in order to obtain the Spirit creates quite a catch-22. It also says that we are sanctified BY the Spirit. If we must be clean BEFORE we obtain the Spirit, how is the Spirit to cleanse us? It’s like telling a person to take a shower and get clean, and after you are clean we’ll give you the soap and water.

    Clearly, we are in the arena of pernicious Mormonish nonsense.

  11. This may be a tangent from your original point, but I have a hard time fitting the role of the Holy Ghost into a lot of other aspects of Mormon Doctrine. The biggest problem is that Mormonism focuses a lot on embodiment (the importance of having a body to progress etc). Why is there one righteous person in the grand plan that deliberately does not have a body in order to do God’s work? Also, if God is all powerful, why can’t he communicate with us directly? Why does he have to talk to us through someone else? Why does not having a body allow the HG to talk to us in this way, but having a body (even an all powerful one) does not? Also, we are supposed to talk to God through Christ, but aren’t we also supposed talk to God and Christ through the Holy Ghost? I also find it strange that the HG is a member of the Godhead, but (in my experience) we talk about him far less that the other two members of the Godhead.

  12. I think it’s interesting to look at the verses following “Quench not the holy Spirit of God…” How do we quench it not, according to Paul?

    “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.”

    It seems to indicate a state of being and an effort to maintain a life of kindness, forgiveness, love, integrity, light, goodness and thankfulness.

    Living such a life does, I believe, make it easier to respond to the Holy Spirit.

    Which may be why it becomes a “gift” when one makes a covenant to try to live that kind of life. Loving efforts to live such a life opens one up to more receptivity to such a gift, more in-tuneness, I think.

  13. I’m sorry, but every time I read the title of this post, I imagine a couple of siblings fighting:

    “I’m not quenching the Spirit! You are!”
    “Am not!”
    “Are too!”
    “Mooooooooom! Jane says I’m quenching the Spirit when I’m not!”

    Maybe this is what I get for reading at night. 🙂

  14. Well said, Lynnette. I’ve asked the same kind of questions you’re asking here.

    On ocassion I have hurled an F-bomb or two at God and/or the universe and in those moments I have felt the spirit quite strongly –often an awareness of the presence of a loving heavenly parent who cares about my pain, sadness, frustration or anger. I have also felt the peace of God wash over me, cleanse me, if you will, in moments of quiet and calm.

    I agree the spirit is always with us. And the context of behavoir and/or how I chose to live day-to-day are real factors in my own life as far as feeling the spirit goes.

    Right now I’m trying to quench the spirit . . .

    Nope. Not working. Oh well. Great post. Thanks for writing.

  15. I really enjoyed this post. I very much agree that the Spirit is not too easily offended. All my experience with the spiritual and the divine whispers that conditional love or conditional Spirit is nonsense. It just doesn’t resonate. It is so dissimilar as well to what I feel towards those who are dear to me. At any time I would love to be in communion with my wife or kids or dear friends, no matter what type of life they are living at the time. My feeling is that our Heavenly Parents and the Holy Ghost feel the same.

  16. “But so often the Spirit we describe seems prim and proper, and completely unable to comprehend the depths of human experience.”


    And the same goes for our youth manuals, testimony meetings, etc. That is NOT the Gospel of Jesus, or even the gospel of Joseph Smith. We should be descending down to the darkest moments of the human experience, not castigating them as evil.

  17. At a sealing, we were told to not be too exuberant in congratulations because of keeping the spirit… I told my husband that the temple workers must think poorly of the spirit if they think hugging and excitement drives it away.

  18. Thanks for this, Lynnette. I was certainly taught in my youth that the spirit can be driven away by small things that I or other people do and I used to find the idea of keeping the spirit with me always to be quite anxiety-provoking (because it seemed so easy to lose).

    I agree now that the spirit can’t possibly have such delicate sensibilities that it can’t stand a curse word, but I think Thomas Parkin is onto something with D&C 112…perhaps the spirit truly is offended when we judge each other, set ourselves above one other, and try to control each other. Recently a close relative was complaining because a woman in church was wearing flip flops and had to walk up to the front of the chapel to chase down her crawling baby during the sacrament. They are in a small ward with few children, so the room was mostly silent and everyone could hear the sound of the flip flops slapping her heels with each step. My relative’s comment was “by the time she got to the front, there was no more spirit.” The spirit may have been driven away for my relative, but I don’t think it was the sound of flip flops that did it.

  19. One of my sisters was in seminary on 9/11, watching news coverage. In response to viewing the horrific events, someone (on the television) uttered a profanity. Her teacher, she reported, commented, “well, there went the Spirit.” I was rather dumbstruck at the idea that the Spirit would be undeterred by acts of terrorism, but flee at the utterance of a profane word. But so often the Spirit we describe seems prim and proper, and completely unable to comprehend the depths of human experience.

    I love this (counter) example. It’s just the sort of thing I would have heard in seminary growing up. (And by “love” I mean “horrified by.”)

    My brother’s a CES dude, I’ll be sure to let him know to what standards of spirit-having I am going to hold him.


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