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CES Reply: Following the Spirit

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

6. Paul H. Dunn:  Dunn was a General Authority of the Church for many years. 

Indeed! I adored Paul H. Dunn. Still do. Marvelous speaker – funny, engaging, and perceptive.

He was a very popular speaker who told incredible faith-promoting war and baseball stories.

He told a lot of other stories, too. He spoke on a great deal of subjects, and, while he clearly made serious errors in judgment, he was, on the whole, a good and decent man.

Stories like how God protected him as enemy machine-gun bullets ripped away his clothing, gear, and helmet without ever touching his skin and how he was preserved by the Lord.  Members of the Church shared how they really felt the Spirit as they listened to Dunn’s testimony and stories.

Well, I realize this is going to sound self-serving, but I was on my mission in an apartment in Dundee, Scotland, when I first heard a talk with that particular story. I remember thinking, “Hunh. That sounds a little too good to be true.” This wasn’t a major revelation – there were no alarm bells clanging, and I didn’t feel prompted to toss my Paul Dunn tapes into the trash.

But what that says to me is that the Spirit testifies of truth even when it’s being delivered by imperfect vessels, mainly because it is always being delivered by imperfect vessels. Paul Dunn’s false stories did not negate the confirmation of his true ones, and I’m willing to bet that other people had the same kind of nagging doubts I did about the stuff he was making up.

Unfortunately, Dunn was later caught lying about all his war and baseball stories and was forced to apologize to the members.  He became the first General Authority to gain “emeritus” status and was removed from public Church life.

He was caught lying, yes. Don’t think that’s accurate re: first G.A. to gain “emeritus” status, but I can’t pinpoint it one way or the other. I remember being in the Tabernacle after the scandal when Paul Dunn received an award for something or other, so I think it’s a bit over-the-top to say he was “removed from public Church life.”

What about the members who felt the Spirit from Dunn’s fabricated and false stories? 

I’m not convinced they did feel the Spirit when Paul Dunn was not telling the truth. They may have felt emotionally moved – Paul Dunn was a very dynamic speaker, after all, and his stories tugged at the heartstrings – but that’s not the same thing as feeling the spirit.

What does this say about the Spirit and what the Spirit really is?

Quite a lot, actually. It says the Spirit testifies of truth wherever it is found, and even in unlikely places and from imperfect vessels. The vast majority of what Paul Dunn said was true, and the Spirit didn’t deprive those listening to him of confirmation of the truths he told even though Elder Dunn made poor choices. It also tells us that we each have a responsibility to discern truth from error, and we do not abdicate that responsibility to someone else’s ecclesiastical position, because even our leaders are fallible.

7. The following are counsel from Elder Boyd K. Packer, Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Neil L. Andersen on how to gain a testimony:

“It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’   Oh, if I could teach you this one principle: a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!” – Boyd K. Packer, The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge

This is one of my favorite talks by Elder Packer, and you seem to be missing the point of it entirely. Elder Packer is not instructing people to lie; quite the opposite, in fact. “You cannot force spiritual things,” he says. “You must await the growth.” These are not the instructions of someone telling people to get out and lie for the Lord.

The next paragraph after the one you quote clarifies his intent:

“Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. “The spirit of man is,” as the scripture says, indeed “the candle of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27).

It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true. Can you not see that it will be supplied as you share it? As you give that which you have, there is a replacement, with increase!

To speak out is the test of your faith.”

This talk helped me to understand faith and how it works, namely that if you push yourself to your limit, the Lord shows you the next steps. It’s a talk that confirms the principle found in Ether 12:6 –  “I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

Indulge me as I share a practical example from my own life. Every year since the beginning of time, my extended family attends Aspen Grove Family Camp up in Provo Canyon. Being morbidly afraid of heights, I spent years avoiding Aspen Grove’s massive ropes course, where you climb up into the trees and walk around on metal wires that are about thirty feet above the ground. You’re attached to belay lines and are perfectly safe, but even though I mentally understood that, that didn’t keep my legs from wobbling like jelly with every step I took when I finally tried the thing. It wasn’t until I actually fell and the belay mechanisms caught me that I got a feel for just how safe I was, and I was able to move forward in a terror-free manner.

That’s the experience that gave me a hands-on practical lesson in faith.

The reason we “receive no witness until after the trial of [our] faith” is not because God is refusing to let us in on His secrets. The truth is that that’s the way faith works. No matter how much one of those nice Aspen Grove staffers were to describe to me the safety features of the helmets and the ropes and the carabiners – I dig the word “carabiner” – it wasn’t until I actually tested the stuff for myself that I was able to develop the faith and confidence to rely on them.

“Faith,” therefore, is not synonymous with “belief,” or passive intellectual assent. Intellectually, I believed I was safe from the first moment. But my negligible faith – my willingness and confidence to act on that belief – didn’t gain strength until after it had been tried. Elder Packer is merely pointing out that exercising enough faith to bear a testimony will provide the spiritual confirmation necessary to strengthen it. That’s a true principle that has been verified time and time again.

“Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge.  We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it.   Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.”

– Dallin H. Oaks, Testimony

Context is helpful here, too. In this talk, Elder Oaks also counsels people to fast, pray, and study in order to build a testimony. Neither he nor Elder Packer are asking people to bear a testimony that they do not believe to be true.

As a young man, I remember asking my own father how I could bear a testimony when I didn’t actually know that the Church was true. “Do you believe the Church is true?” he asked me. I said that I did. “Well, why can’t you say that? If that’s the extent of your testimony, there’s no shame in sharing where you are.” I then found that bearing that degree of testimony – I had faith and belief – strengthened my personal conviction. Accompanied with study and prayer, I can now stand up and testify to my knowledge of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel, and my bearing of the testimony I had was instrumental in building the testimony I have.

“It may come as you bear your own testimony of the Prophet…Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly…Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.”

– Neil  L.  Andersen,  Joseph Smith

When I read this with your ellipses, I assumed Elder Andersen was counseling people to record their own personal testimony of the prophet and listen to it, which admittedly seemed strange. You’ve done some very selective and misleading editing here, as that isn’t what Elder Andersen was saying at all.

The first sentence you quote is from an entirely different paragraph and is not connected to the rest of the text. Here’s his pertinent statement without the ellipses:

Next, read the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Pearl of Great Price or in this pamphlet, now in 158 languages. You can find it online at LDS.org or with the missionaries. This is Joseph’s own testimony of what actually occurred. Read it often. Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.

He’s not asking people to bear their own testimonies and listen to themselves saying “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet.” He’s asking people to read Joseph Smith – History, which will strengthen their testimony. He then asks them to consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith – i.e. “I saw a pillar of light, etc.” – not recording their testimony of Joseph Smith – i.e. saying “I know it’s true” over and over again.

In other words, repeat things over and over until you convince yourself that it’s true.   Just keep telling yourself, “I know it’s true…I know it’s true…I know it’s true” until you believe it and voilà!   You now have a testimony that the Church is true and Joseph Smith was a prophet.

Nope. If you follow Elder Andersen’s instructions – a suggestion, really, as advice to “consider” something isn’t really an apostolic mandate –  you won’t be telling yourself “I know it’s true” over and over again; you’ll be listening to and pondering Joseph’s words, not your own.

You’ve grossly distorted both Elder Andersen’s words and his intent here.

How is this honest?  How is this ethical?  

It certainly isn’t honest or ethical to grossly distort an apostle’s words and intent.

What kind of advice are these Apostles giving when they’re telling you that if you don’t have a testimony, bear one anyway? 

That’s not what they’re saying.

How is this not lying? 

Because no one is being asked to say anything they don’t believe is true.

There’s a difference between saying you know something and you believe something.

Yes, and one can bear a testimony of both. Bearing testimony of one will strengthen the testimony of the other.

What about members and investigators who are on the other side listening to your “testimony”?  How are they supposed to know whether you actually do have a testimony of Mormonism or if you’re just following Packer’s, Oaks’ and Andersen’s counsel and you’re lying your way into one?

Elders Packer, Oaks, and Andersen would agree that nobody should lie when they’re bearing their testimony.

8. There are many members who share their testimonies that the Spirit told them that they were to marry this person or go to this school or move to this location or start up this business or invest in this investment. They rely on this Spirit in making critical life decisions.

Indeed, and I am very skeptical of such members. When teaching Sunday School, I will occasionally ask the class which brand of toothpaste the Lord would want them to use. This usually gets a laugh, as most people realize that the Lord doesn’t care. People who expect spiritual confirmations to guide them through every decision in their life are conducting themselves contrary to D&C 58:26, where the Lord says, “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.”

The reason we were sent to Earth was to exercise our own agency and use our own judgment. Waiting around for the Lord to tell us what to do at every turn is essentially a low-grade version of the plan we rejected in the pre-mortal life.

But what about the big decisions? Who we marry, where we go to school, what we should do for a living? Personally, I prayed very hard to get a confirmation as to whether or not I should marry my wife. I received no answer one way or the other. Then I was kneeling across the altar from her in the Salt Lake Temple, and I got a very clear, sweet message from the Spirit that I was doing the right thing. That actually made me somewhat frustrated. I was thinking, “You know, Lord, I would have appreciated this if you’d given me this message just a few days ago.” But in my experience, that’s not how the Lord works. He expects me to make decisions and act on them, and only afterward does the confirmation come. I receive no witness until after the trial of my faith.

When the decision turns out to be not only incorrect but disastrous, the fault lies on the individual and never on the Spirit. 

The Spirit never overrides our agency, so we are always accountable for our own decisions. That’s the plan. And the Lord also knew that we would make mistakes, some of them disastrous. That’s why the Infinite Atonement is at the center of the plan.

The individual didn’t have the discernment or it was the individual’s hormones talking or it was the individual’s greed that was talking or the individual wasn’t worthy at the time.

Those are all possibilities, but none of us are in a position to judge another’s heart. We’re also not always able to see if things that look like huge mistakes work out as blessings down the road.

This poses a profound flaw and dilemma:  if individuals can be so convinced that they’re being led by the Spirit but yet be so wrong about what the Spirit tells them, how can they be sure of the reliability of this same exact process in telling them that Mormonism is true?

I think the process you’re describing is not the same process the Lord uses to communicate with his children. There’s a reason the Spirit is referred to as a “still, small voice.” It requires experience and effort and commitment to know how and when to listen, and the Spirit’s gentle promptings can be overlooked or ignored when our focus is elsewhere. You seem to be advocating a process where the Spirit screams at us through a megaphone. Certainly that would be harder to ignore, but it would also defeat the purpose of mortality, which is to learn to exercise faith.

9. I felt the Spirit watching “Saving Private Ryan” and the “Schindler’s List.” Both R-rated and horribly violent movies.

Me, too. Other R-rated movies where I’ve felt the Spirit include “The Shawshank Redemption,” and, most recently, “Spotlight.” I think the counsel to avoid R-rated movies is a good general rule, but I don’t think the Motion Picture Association of America is infallible, either, nor do I think they have a mandate from heaven. There are valuable lessons and profound truths in both of those movies, so it doesn’t surprise me that the Spirit would bear witness to them.

I also felt the Spirit watching “Forrest Gump” and the “Lion King.”

Well, okay. Except I think “Lion King” in particular is just plain awful, although I recognize that’s a minority position.

After I lost my testimony, I attended a conference where former Mormons shared their stories. The same Spirit I felt telling me that Mormonism is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet is the same Spirit I felt in all of the above experiences.

Well, here I begin to wonder what it is you think is the Spirit, especially since you no longer really believe there is a Spirit.

Does this mean that Lion King is true?   That Mufasa is real and true?   Does this mean that Forrest Gump is real and the story happened in real life?  

This is a clear indication that you have a very warped understanding of what the Spirit actually is – or, more appropriately, who He is. When you felt the Spirit during “Forrest Gump,” was He telling you Forrest Gump was a historical figure? Because the Spirit isn’t an inanimate object; He is a member of the Godhead who imparts information, not just warm and pleasant feelings. As Joseph Smith taught, “No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator.”(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 328)

The Holy Ghost actually tells you what it is that He’s confirming.

When feeling the Spirit during Schindler’s List, for instance, He confirmed the truth that sacrifices made to save Jews during World War II were noble and good, and that I was seeing a story that reinforced true and good virtues. During The Shawshank Redemption, He confirmed that friendship and compassion are of infinite worth. During “Spotlight,” He confirmed that it was right to call attention to the terrible child abuse taking place in the Catholic church.

For you to ask whether feeling the Spirit means that Mufasa truly exists, you give the impression that you see the Spirit as something akin to the buzzer that rings at church when there are five minutes left in Sunday School. To you, He’s a thing, not a person, and, furthermore, He’s a thing that can only impart binary information. (I.E. Warm feelings means this is historical; no warm feelings means this is not.) This actually makes me very sad, because if you could spend your whole life in the Church and ask if a good feeling you have during the Lion King is spiritual confirmation that Mufasa was a historical figure, then there is something fundamentally wrong with how we teach children – and adults, for that matter – about how the Spirit operates.

Why did I feel the Spirit as I listened to the stories of apostates sharing how they discovered for themselves that Mormonism is not true?

How can you say you felt the Spirit after you rejected the existence of a Spirit as you listened to people deny that there actually is a Spirit? Especially after you think feeling the Spirit confirms the physical existence of cartoon characters?

Why is this Spirit so unreliable and inconsistent?

He isn’t. Your own spiritual education, however, seems to have been far more unreliable and inconsistent than it ought to have been.

How can I trust such an inconsistent and contradictory Source for knowing that Mormonism is worth betting my  life, time, money, heart, mind, and obedience  to?

You can’t. Because based on your observations here, whatever source you’ve been listening to bears little or no resemblance to the Spirit.

This thought–provoking video raises some profound questions and challenges to the Latter-day Saint concept of “testimony” and receiving a witness from the Holy Ghost or Spirit as being a unique, reliable, and trustworthy source to discerning truth and reality:

I can’t seem to embed the video here on my blog. (It’s in my PDF reply.) The video raises essentially the same questions and challenges you’ve raised in your text, and my above responses apply to this video as well.

Tomorrow: The Priesthood and Magic

CES Reply: Testimonies
CES Reply: The Priesthood and Magic

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