One reason Donald Trump assumed the Presidency of the United States last year is the support other leaders gave him early in the nomination contest. When Ben Carson endorsed Trump, he provided the following explanation (among others), “I prayed about it a lot and I got a lot of indications – people calling me that I haven’t talked with for a long time, ‘I had this dream about you and Donald Trump’ (laughter) I mean, just these amazing things! But I also, tend to think that the way God speaks to you is by giving you wisdom.”
At the time, I wrote in exasperation, “There you have it, ladies and gentlemen! A revelation from God telling this good doctor it was time to join forces with Trump. Maybe now the rest of us can put away our silly concerns and get on board?”
Exasperation aside, this experience made clear to me some of the dangers of our often naive view of God’s “promptings” and answers to prayers as involving anything we deeply come to feel. In that case, after all, how can you question a revelation from God?!
Better “follow that prompting,” right? That’s sometimes how we speak of guidance from God in our faith community. Despite the inherent complexities of interpretation + complex individual experience, we sometimes talk in a way that presumes anything we feel deeply or intensely comes from God: aka, “I received a prompting…so I better act on it!”
Period. End of story.
I’ve raised critical questions recently about those who very publicly claim God has led them to embrace a profoundly new sexual dogma (and progressive version of the gospel), as well as others claiming God had poignantly affirmed that an anti-depressant was His answer to their intense prayers for deliverance from depression.
While each of these personal experiences involved tender feelings and difficult questions, the same pattern still applies. In all these cases, much less consideration is given to either (a) The contrast between different ways of interpreting a prompting and (b) the possibility of “promptings” from sources that are not divine.
What does this have to do with mindfulness? One of the beautiful benefits of mindfulness is being able to break apart (and “break down”) complex experiences with the lens of our own awareness. Where it used to be “just a mass of depression”…with enough contemplative practice, we’re able to see the crucial surrounding relationship context feeding into the experience, alongside the ruminative thoughts, separate from an assortment of physical sensations, and a complex interplay of emotions that includes intense sorrow (along with moments of hope and love).
This sort of clarity can make a significant difference in (a) knowing what is happening and then (b) sensing what to do next from a place of calm and wisdom. In the absence of this kind of seeing however, the combined complexity can overwhelm easily.
In a similar way, a prompting (or what we believe in a certain moment to be a prompting) invariably comes amidst diverse circumstances around us and inside us, including a complex backdrop of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Are we aware of what is what, and how these aspects might influence each other?
Rarely. As a result, things can get pretty foggy and confusing. If we lurch forward insisting we’ve heard God’s voice, at times I believe we can (potentially) come to uncritically accept something that God might desperately want us to critically analyze a bit more.
And what if we did?
The doctrine of false revelation. The beginning of a (more) critical analysis might need to start with a (broader) understanding of what modern prophets have actually taught about revelation.
One of the beautifully radical parts of the restored gospel of Jesus is the understanding that God not only allows, but actually encourages each of His children to seek out their own personal witness and experience of the truth.
By default, this introduces wide variation into people’s experiences, not only because individual experiences are unique and the world is diverse, but because human interpretation of a complex Mormon theology make for a profoundly interesting spectrum of conclusions.
In addition to the widely-appreciated spectrum of individual personality differences and life experiences, it’s clear in prophetic teaching that there are also differences in the kinds of spirits we interact with in the world. Connected with guidance given to Joseph Smith at Kirtland, Ohio on May 9, 1831, it was noted that “some of the elders did not understand the manifestations of different spirits abroad in the earth” which prompted a “special inquiry on the matter.”
This preface to Section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants notes that it was “not uncommon among the members” to claim to have received a vision, revelation or a “so-called spiritual phenomenon.” Joseph Smith went on to write about what God had taught Him about this, including this teaching about “the spirits which have gone abroad in the earth”: “Behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world” (D&C 50: 1–3, 31–35).
In the Book of Jude, these “false spirits” are defined in the Bible as the spirits of “angels which kept not their first estate” (Jude 1:6).
While this may be subtle, at times, these spirits also have the potential to be very insistent and powerful, “crying with loud voice” (Acts 8:7) and even appearing in physical view as an “an angel of light” (D&C 129:8).
For this reason, different spiritual teachers have cautioned against “giving heed to seducing spirits” (1 Tim. 4:1) or “list[ing] to obey” them (Mosiah 2:37; Alma 3:26). Joseph was himself warned that the master of these spirits (Satan) “hath sought to deceive you, that he might overthrow you” (D&C 50:1–3, 31–35).
It’s easy to see how this might happen, with subtle (or intense) feelings arising seemingly out of the blue, feeling so real, so relevant, so true, and so important. Indeed, this whole situation is complicated by the fact that most the time, most people remain wholly unaware that these spirits even exist.
Our own family’s experience. On several occasions in our own family, we’ve had experiences where, seemingly out of the blue, a different, strange, heavy feeling came into our home. In one instance, my wife and I came to feel a renewal of some deep feelings of uncertainty and hurt towards each other that felt so real and so important that we spent several hours in intense conversation about what felt like aching, urgent short-comings in our marriage.
After separating myself from the situation, I prayed and sat with everything happening. With extra insight from this communion, it became clear that these intense feelings we were experiencing were not from God. I returned to my wife and proposed that we “not allow these feelings to dictate the conversation we ought to be having.” Instead, we decided to reorient our inquiry toward one question: “What are God’s expectations of our relationship?”
We also prayed that if we had been influenced by something not of God, that he would “chase this darkness from us.” Within the same night, the foul spirit had passed – and things were back to normal. The whole experience was so real and strange, and had such a hold over us: almost psychedelic in its impact!
I shudder to think about what happens to marriages (or individuals) who have similar experiences of dark, heavy, angry spirits “manifesting” – especially if they don’t recognize them as such. In that case, how easy it could be to follow them out in all their toxic logic and despairing demands.
Understandable confusions. This is hardly something we talk about publicly, let alone think about ourselves however. No surprise, then, that many people find themselves confused at how to work with this “manifestation of different spirits.”
Thus, we hear the Lord acknowledging the confusion and misunderstanding of his people on this very point: When Jesus’s apostles encouraged him to do something aggressive, he rebuked them: “ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of” (Luke 9:55). And in a warning to his latter-day followers, the Lord gave specific counsel about what to do when they encounter “a spirit…that you cannot understand” (D&C 50:31).
Specifically, the Lord goes on to encourage the Saints to ask God regarding the nature of the spirit: “ye shall ask of the Father in the name of Jesus; and if he give not unto you that spirit, then you may know that it is not of God.”
In a similar way, John once said, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try [or “test”] the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). Many other prophets have taught (or have been taught) additional ways to “test” or discern a deep spiritual impression we are feeling.
For sake of simplicity, I mention just four below:
- Nephi’s test. Does the impression lead us to greater intimacy and connection with God through our personal communion with Him? “The evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray” (2 Ne. 32:8).
- John’s test. Does the impression testify of Christ (or not)? “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:2).
- Mormon’s test. Does the impression persuade and lead us to do good? “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” (Moroni 7:16-17).
- Joseph’s test. Does the impression bring our minds more light, and our hearts more joy? “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy” (D&C 11:13).
As part of this inquiry, Joseph was also promised “power to overcome this spirit” and “power to overcome all things which are not ordained of him” (D&C 50: 31–35).
Perhaps more important than any specific “test” is continuing to connect ourselves to the spirit of truth, as the Lord told Hyrum once: “And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit” (D&C 11:12).
All the foregoing, of course, will be irrelevant or overlooked if our conversation largely presumes that any intense feeling or emotion is a “prompting that I must follow.”
From a Latter-day Saint vantage point, it’s clearly not! So let’s do more to talk (really talk) and think (carefully) about how we can know whether it is or not. In the absence of that kind of conversation, we may embrace something as “of God” that, in actual fact, leads us in a direction of greater heartache and pain.