Spiritual experiences as a foundation for faith

I have been intrigued by Blake Ostler’s 2007 FAIR conference presentation entitled, “Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment.”  I have read it several times and have decided that Blake is on to something that I would like to develop further.  As you can see I have modified his title a little bit for use in my essay.  I highly recommend you read his essay first.

I’m going to focus on two points he made as he was answering questions towards the end of the presentation.  The first is this: “Memory, and what we do, is changed every time we think about it and remember it.”  The second is this: “All logic is ex post facto to prove what we already feel is true.”  Keep those points in mind as I advance some ideas on my experience with revelation.

Youthful revelatory experiences

Like Blake, I had some remarkable revelatory experiences when I was young that impressed me at the time but have impressed me even more as I have pondered and remembered them over the years.  I have written about them previously, but will list them here to provide some background.  Don’t think that these sacred events were easily obtained or casually absorbed.  They weren’t.

I was taught and believe that we cannot live on borrowed light.  Throughout my Seminary and Institute experience, I must have heard dozens of lessons on how vitally important it is to obtain our own witness of the spirit in order to remain committed to the church and the gospel in later years.  My teachers taught me and the spirit confirmed that I could receive personal revelation.

Foundational spiritual events

The first revelatory experience to which I’ll refer was obtained while I was a student at BYU Idaho.  I was seventeen years old and very immature but very impressed with a testimony I had heard that week from an Apostle of the Lord.  That weekend in my room I prayed fervently for many hours to know for myself that what he had said was true and important for me in my life.

The next impressive spiritual event in the development of my testimony was the next year when I was eighteen years old and preparing myself to serve a mission.  I have also shared this one in a previous essay.  The experience was equally as impressive as the first one though it was perhaps deeper in meaning and implication.  These are part of my early foundational spiritual memories.

Deep impact on my faith

These were not my only youthful revelatory experiences.  I have recorded several others in my journals that came almost unbidden during the years before my mission.  Although I received them as a result of prayer, the effort was not as intense.  In other words, I did not pray for many hours or fast for days to obtain the other experiences.  Nevertheless, they were just as powerful.

Because of these events, I was able to go through the difficult and rigorous experience of serving as a missionary without looking back and wondering why I decided to sacrifice like that for two years.  I had these sacred memories burning in my heart and being added unto with additional everyday assurances from the Lord that I was engaged in his work and that he was appreciative.

Working with imperfect people

Life marches on.  An education is obtained, a marriage is solemnized in the temple, a family is raised and increasing responsibilities in a career and in the church are rewarding and fulfilling.  As sometimes happens, I begin to learn things about my faith, and especially about the people in it that are at first disturbing and then disappointing.  I experience some logical inconsistencies.

Cognitive dissonance can be a painful experience when it includes people from our world who are in authoritative positions.  For example, a beloved bishop from my youth became inactive after he was released.  How could this happen?  He represented the Lord to me in interviews that I held sacred.  He helped me resolve several youthful problems and encouraged me to be faithful.

Imperfections even at high levels

Another bishop from my youth is disciplined after fiscal improprieties in his business dealings are revealed.  I learn of divorces of people whom I admired, some of whom were influential in my youth.  I then begin to learn of difficulties in higher levels of the church – stake presidents who lose their testimonies and announce to their congregations that they are leaving the faith.

A promising general authority is excommunicated for breaking the law of chastity.  I discover that an apostle was excommunicated for this very same reason less than forty years earlier.  How is this possible – a modern apostle excommunicated?  I can understand it happening in the early days of the church but not in our day and age.  These are men of God.  Tell me this wasn’t so!

Sacred things exposed and mocked

I discovered that a former ordinance worker in the temple had recorded the temple ceremony and then published it.  How could he do that?  I hold the temple sacred and have enjoyed so many wonderful experiences there over the years.  What could cause him to lose his faith and reveal something that means so much to me?  Did he never have any spiritual experiences of his own?

From the earliest days of the church there have been those who have not been impressed with the sacred nature of the temple and have exposed things that they have covenanted to keep sacred.  In our day there are those who claim to have received the second anointing and then describe it on the message boards of those who hate the church.  Something’s not right with this picture.

Not all members receive revelation

I used to think that everybody in the church had spiritual experiences similar to those I enjoyed in my youth.  Over the years, I have come to realize that this is not the case.  Can that be true even for those who have served as bishops, stake presidents or even general authorities?  In my opinion, yes – personal experience has shown this to be so.  Not all members receive revelation.

That has been an amazing thing for me to contemplate.  Was I just extremely lucky or blessed to believe that I could receive revelation when I was so young?  Several visitors to my blog over the years have tried to convince me that I did not receive revelation.  They have suggested that what I experienced was a form of self-hypnosis, or simply the effect of a frenzied, emotional state.

Memories can be enlarged

Back to Blake’s two points, memory first.  I have come to realize that although my early spiritual experiences occurred nearly thirty-five years ago, they are clearer in my mind now then when I first experienced them.  The combination of pondering them and writing about them has helped me to understand that there was much more detail in the experiences than what I first thought.

As Blake pointed out in his essay, this helps me to understand why Joseph Smith could recount the same First Vision experience differently in each of the accounts he relates over the years.  I was so focused on determining my own standing before God in my first youthful manifestation that I had overlooked how deeply and powerfully the Lord spoke to me about missionary labors.

How to explain all this

Blake’s second point was that all logic is created to prove what we already feel is true.  I have had prima facia experiences that overrule any logical inconsistencies I have encountered in what I have learned about the history and people of this church as I have studied it in more depth.  In effect, I have not really experienced cognitive dissonance at all because the spiritual trumps logical.

Let me restate that.  My spiritual revelatory experiences with the Holy Ghost early in my life have proven to be so powerful that it seems that no matter what kind of troubling things I may learn about the men who run or have run this church, I feel inoculated and immune to their effect.  My evangelical friends call this “living in the protective Mormon bubble of a testimony.”

Summary and conclusion

My experiences with the Holy Ghost are not going to be the same as yours.  They may be similar or they may be completely different.  For me, these revelatory events in my youth have provided a foundation for my experiences in this church thus far.  I have encountered much imperfection and weakness in the men who run it, but the spiritual witnesses of my life have protected me.

The bottom line is that I continue to believe that the LDS Church is what it claims to be when it was setup through the prophet Joseph Smith in 1830.  The simple fact is that we can know this for ourselves through revelatory encounters with the Holy Ghost.  No matter what negative things I discover, nothing can overcome the strength of that personal witness if I remain worthy.

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Note about the illustration: This artist’s conception of Joseph translating the Book of Mormon is one that is highly criticized by some members of the church.  They feel it is disingenuous because it does not show Joseph using the seer stones in the hat.  It also shows the plates in plain view of Oliver which was not the case.  Joseph was not to show them to anyone unless commanded of the Lord.

9 thoughts on “Spiritual experiences as a foundation for faith”

  1. Tim:

    This essay is filled with many superior observations. One reason I read this blog is because you always call issues precisely the way you see them, and you write in such a clear manner.

    I completely agree about the first vision. I have never believed a 14 year old boy would walk away from such an experience thinking that he had solved all the problems with the Trinity. Instead, he would walk away shocked and bewildered. The experience would be one in which he would have to ponder the rest of his life.

    Additionally, I am not sure that spiritual experiences always provide a strong buffer against loss of testimony. There are plenty of instances in scripture wherein somebody sees a miracle or an angel and then runs in a direction contrary to God. Such individuals include Jonah, Peter, and Oliver Cowdery.

    Ultimately, as we pursue religion we must be honest with ourselves. We must think for ourselves, seek confirmation, and then follow the spirit as we have come to know it. Mormonism is all about individual responsibility.

  2. S.Faux:

    You nailed it. I’ll bet Joseph pondered that First Vision experience many times over the years before he really understood what had happened. I think that the additional visions such as section 76 and section 110 contributed to his crowning theological pronouncements in the King Follett discourse near the end of his life.

    My closing statement might have been a little overstated. My confidence today might not be as strong years from now unless I continue to feed that testimony and follow additional promptings of the spirit that are intended to help me grow and mature. That concerns me because I know that I am a weak man in so many ways. But I am committed to go forward in faith, trusting in the Lord.

    You added a point which I should have brought out that a spiritual experience is no guarantee that one will remain true and faithful over the years. It is that sense of personal responsibility and accountability that makes it so powerful for me. I know what I felt when I first received my testimony and I want to be true to those feelings all the days of my life. That’s going to require continual work and effort.

    As always, thanks for your continued feedback on my essays. It is greatly appreciated. I need to stop writing for awhile and go do some commenting on other’s blogs, especially yours. I always find worthwhile observations there.

  3. I have had personal revelation. Some have come in simple promptings such as stopping by to a friend and that friend telling me that they were wanting or needing to speak with me (this actually happens quite a bit). It’s a warm and humbling experience almost every time. I’ve also had a couple of dreams that have been so direct as to clearly state it has a devine purpose.

    To those that are unaware or unfamiliar with these promptings, it is sometimes hard to give ANY credance to such “emotional nonsense”. It can be hurtful but more likely they are not necessarily trying to be hurtful but instead have no idea what you’ve experienced because of inexperience on their part.

    I love this gospel. It provides for me a sense of how Heavenly Father loves us. With each Sunday School lesson, talk with my bishop, home teaching visit, with each contact with another member, my testimony is reinforced.

    What S. Faux said about how spiritual experiences do not always provide a strong buffer against loss of testimony, affects me differently. Since the time the missionaries taught me of the plan of salvation, I’ve known. That one little meeting was built upon over time. There were times when there was no personal spiritual growth even though there was activity in the church and there were even rebelious times when I wanted nothing to do with any more rules or demands from anyone or anything because I was hurt by the person closest to my testimony. But when the smoke cleared, there I was standing there knowing I had rebelled because I KNEW where the truth lay and refused to embrace it when the problems were overwhelming. I knew the Book of Mormon was holy scripture and I knew it was brought forth by the will and hand of God through Joseph Smith.

    I fear I cannot fathom the things Joseph experienced if it were to happen to me or how Joseph must have felt. Awe and wonder are just to small a concept to describe to me what it must have been like to touch the plates of gold handed to us by an angel of the Lord, or to see those angels about the Kirtland temple, or to have Peter, James, and John bestow the Holy Priesthood upon me. I only know what I have experienced and I can truthfully say “I know”.

  4. Tim, I’d like to thank you for ending your post with the words “I Believe….”, in contrast to RickM’s end with “I Know” in quotes. Let me share an experience told to me by a missionary companion. My companion was assigned to go pick up Elder Haight of the Q12 for a mission conference. While they were waiting for transportation, my companion had some one-on-one time with the Apostle. Elder Haight looks at my companion and said “Elder, do you know how some people when they bear there testimony will say “I know JS saw God the Father”, or “I know JS translated the BofM”. Well Elder, these people cannot “know” these things because they were not there. They did not see JS translating the BofM, so they do not “know”, but they believe it is true”. Then Elder Haight paused, and said “Elder, I know Jesus Christ Lives” and he walked away.

    Now you might just say this is semantics or word games I’m playing, but I believe Elder Haight was on to something. I know people that do not get up during Fast Meeting, because they don’t know, they just believe, and everybody from 3 year olds to the Bishop has just got up and said “I Know (fill in the blank)” If we believe the BofM definition of Faith, then we as a church have lost all faith, because everybody “knows”, and left no room for the believers.

    In a previous calling I even tried to teach the people under my stewardship to say “I believe” when bearing their testimony. It didn’t work, They all “knew” just as RickM knows.

    Closet Doubter

  5. Hi Closet Doubter,

    Your comment deserves an essay of its own. I’ve had this dialog in the comments section of my blog so many times with so many visitors that it is obviously a big deal that needs further exploration. I’m referring of course to the practice of saying “I know” in our testimonies as opposed to “I believe.”

    On the one hand we have dozens of quotes from prophets and apostles who teach us why we should say I know. They focus on what happens when we use those simple words in our testimonies. I referred in a previous essay to an astonishing experience I had with Elder Holland as he taught our stake about this practice.

    On the other hand, we have so many who equate the process of knowing only to the five senses. I can see it both ways and can understand why it bothers some people to hear members get up there and say that they know something is true when the logical mind is thinking, “They can’t know. They weren’t there.”

    I know invoking the name of Boyd K. Packer elicits a derisive response from so many who see the world as black and white, but he taught this principle the best. I’m going to edit a talk I gave when I was in the Bishopric a few years ago about bearing testimony and post it as an essay in the next couple of days.

    Thanks for your continued readership, closet doubter. I value your comments.

  6. Tim:
    Thank you once again for an insightful post. Having just studied and pondered Section 46 of the Doctrine and Covenants, I most heartily agree that our spiritual experiences are definitely contributing factors to our level of belief and the commitment we exhibit regarding the covenants we enter into. These spiritual experiences are just that, experiences facilitated by the Holy Ghost. They are in essence part of the “gifts of the spirit” rarely fully understood. Each time we enter into covenants with the Lord, blessings for obedience to those covenants are promised. The escalating order in which these covenants are made then allows for the spirit to teach in like manner, and the promised gifts are given. Ultimately the greatest level of commitment allows for the greatest gifts to be given. These degrees, or levels of spirituality are simply given in the form of more light. IMHO A previous experience had at a time when an individual may have had less experience or light may be viewed quite differently than a time when he has greater light. It is all a matter of spiritual perspective.

  7. Tim, again you have nailed it on the head. I love the manifestations of the Spirit to my spirit, especially as I bear testimony or write my conversion story. It comes back to me in a way I just don’t anticipate, especially as I think of my life growing up and seeing how all the good and bad led me to where I am today.

    Closet Doubter, I really appreciate your comments and bravery in letting yourself and your thoughts out there. Hope to hear more.

  8. Great post. A lot of this resonated with me as well. I really do believe that the church leadership has this view as well – despite the talks focusing on “know.” Faith means being willing to act on your belief, even if you have doubts and don’t know. That’s the difference between acting on your beliefs and acting on your doubts. And it is a fine line.

    I am at times skeptical of my spiritual experiences, and I certainly don’t fathom why others haven’t experienced some of the things I have, but by the same token, all I can do is live my own life and make my own choices.

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