Every first Sunday of the month we stand up in our congregations and share spiritual experiences that confirm our faith. Times when prayers were answered, or impressions proved true with the passage of time. These are true experiences. Lest we fall for a confirmation bias, we must also examine the unanswered prayer, and the unclear spiritual experiences. Only within a full tapestry of our experiences, can we find the complete truth.
First, I compiled a few choice experiences that were transcendent and faith confirmatory.
Next, are some spiritual experiences that, upon hindsight, have not panned out nor did they witness truth.
Spirit World Awe
In my youth, a common story circulated.
In the Spirit World, we would meet the greats: Nephi, Joseph Smith, Moses, Peter, etc. All would ooh and ah. But then people will ask who you are. “I was a youth under President Gordon B. Hinckley.” A hush would run across the crowd, and folks would begin to kneel in reverence. For those times, in the last days, were of such great upheaval and wickedness only the most choice and faithful would remain.
I ate that story up. I felt something. Even now, if I concentrate, I can get that same shivering feeling. Now, I know that it was probably my own egotism that had just been feed a banquet. And that feels good, sure. But I felt the same feeling then, as when I read of Joseph’s prophecies, or moving sermons in general conference. I was deeply impacted by these rumors.
Prophets of the Apocalypse
As a boy, I first learned of the two martyred prophets mentioned in Revelation chapter 11. These prophets would preach in Jerusalem during the battle of Armageddon. After three and a half years, they were murdered and their bodies left to rot. After three days, to the astonishment of all, they resurrect and are lifted into the heavens.
I was overwhelmed with a very special feeling. A thought crossed my mind in tremendous clarity: “You are one of those. You will be there in the last day. Stay worthy and faithful, and you will be my servant spoken of in these verses.”
I didn’t know what to think. “Cool.” It certainly made me feel unique. It helped foster my desire to be worthy of such a calling. I always felt the spirit when we discussed the second coming. What does it mean? I don’t know. Maybe it is just the standard inserting of self into a hero narrative. Or maybe it means Armageddon is almost here. With more than a third of my life already accounted for, the latter interpretation no longer brings those special feeling it once did.
Bautizar Cada Semana
My last one comes from the mission. About four months in, we get a visit from the member of the Seventy in our Area Presidency, Elder Daniels. In the meetings and zone conferences, he promised us in powerful terms, in the name of Christ and his office, that if we are obedient and diligent, the field was white; we will baptize once a week. Up to that point, our rate was about once a month. I can testify that I felt one of the strongest spiritual experiences of my entire life, even to this day. I knew it was true, with every fiber of my being. I distinctly remember sitting there, and feeling supremely overcome with the tremendous possibilities. We were going to do it. I had a cousin in Mexico City doing it, and this land was also chosen. We were going to do it, too. This changed everything. I double downed my obedience, I was more bold on the streets, I was more confident in our lessons, I sought after the spirit to know who was ready. I discussed it with the mission president. I was a new missionary.
The weeks went by, the months, the transfers, the zone conferences. The zeal quickly diminished from the other elders, even the leadership; the mentions of “cada semana” diminished. I held on hope, that we were just around the corner.
One year later, now I’m the zone leader, Elder Daniels visits the mission, again. His resolve and promise are as strong as ever. He gives anecdote upon anecdote of missionary success. I leave pumped and excited. I can help lead the other missionaries to these successes through my faith and diligence. Except … the baptism didn’t come. Nothing really changed. The rates stayed the same. I still worked hard, had our joys and successes. I didn’t get trunky. I christened my last transfer “una explosión”. But, no, no explosion of baptisms. We never reached anything near once a week. No one did.
For a long time I blamed myself, even I didn’t know where to blame myself. I knew I had enough faith. I believed in it with all the knowledge of a carribean sun upon my balding head. I worked hard, I studied hard, I was bold in inviting, everything we heard in the anecdotes. After a few years of postmortem and reflection, I couldn’t identify what went wrong. I wasn’t a perfect missionary, but I knew I gave my best, and my companions did, too. I decided Elder Daniels was just expressing his own zeal. I had heard a few other stories of the Seventy trying to rally missions by promising the moon. We were just one of those.
But I still felt something. Why?
Lastly, there are some prominent experiences in our Church that, at the very least, indicate the opacity and messiness of revelatory experiences.
On 30 Sep 1989, Elder Paul H. Dunn, age 65, of the Presidency of the First Quorum of Seventy is given emeritus status “in consideration of factors of age and health.” It had later came out, over the years, that this was not the reason. Elder Dunn had habitually exaggerated and self aggrandized his personal history, anecdotes, and sermons. In 1991 he issued a public apology.
During his decades of service, he became one of the most popular general authorities, giving speaking tours, selling cassettes and books. He lifted and inspired with his fabricated stories of WWII bravery and Major League playing. He had a spirit about him. A charismatic presence that did good; among the youth, especially. Yet, not only were his talks peppered with half truths and lies, he had also promoted business dealings based on thin air and gullible members.
The dichotomy is stark and a cause for ponder. Both are true, the inspiration to do good caused by an untruthful story, and the deceit and self-promotion of the messenger.
This strongly contrasts the scripture, “so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.” James 3:12. It counteract’s Mormons expounding on this idea,
“Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift. For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water. … For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, … that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night…The Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil.
“Wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.” (Mormon 7:10-17)
The next story is from the previous century. As part if the Mormon Reformation, Apostle George A. Smith toured southern Utah in August of 1857. He wrote in his report, published in the Deseret News, “Now, there had not been such preaching as that when I went away; but the spirit seemed to burn in my bones to visit all these settlements in that southern region.” “I never had greater liberty of speech to proclaim to the people my feelings and views; and in spite of all I could do, I found myself preaching a military discourse…I told them in case of invasion it might be necessary to set fire to our property and hide in the mountains, and leave our enemies to do the best they could.”
This fire and brimstone rhetoric ultimately laid the foundation for the violence in southern Utah that lead to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. With context we can understand why it was natural to worry about a federal invasion aimed at exterminating the Mormons. But with hindsight, we know that such a extreme scenario was never in the plans of the federal government or army. We know their primary goal was to replace the governor with a non-Mormon. Additionally and tragically, we now understand that this type of rhetoric worsened the situation. It escalated rather than de-escalated. And what an escalation, it was.
Only a complete picture of our spiritual interactions can give us a relationship between using the Spirit and discovering truth. There are many occasions when we can feel the spirit and also find truth. Yet, not every spiritual experience testifies of Truth with a big T. They are always true emotion. They can often appealing to our better parts. We want to be better, kinder, more loving, harder working, or a better human being. Other times, like in Elder George A. Smith’s we can simply get carried away in powerful zealous emotion. There are many instances of leaders teaching that not all powerfully emotional experiences are the Spirit, but I have yet to see a consistent metric to use when discerning the Spirit other than “deep, powerful emotion.” My emotions and experiences in both parts I and II were the same, yet the outcomes and results varied widely. These are my experiences, and the experiences of others. They are all true.
What do you make of the discrepancy? We should probably limit the use of Spiritual experiences to confirm truths outside our own experiences. A grasshopper jumps 12 inches, regardless of my Spirituality surrounding the event. But, religious experiences can still bring emotional truths. Overtime, they can help heal trauma, bring meaning to life, cement and reinforce positive human relationships, bring peace and calm, inspire us to forgive, be kinder, and be nicer. It has this potential. But it also comes with a warning. The converts to Bin Laden’s religious spirituality committed atrocities. The Spanish Inquisition committed genocide in the name of Christ. Our own experience with Elder George A. Smith is a caution for us all.
We are endowed with agency. How we use our spiritual nature is our responsibility and our burden. O be wise, what can I say more?