Pithy Phrase

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away childish things.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On Not-So-Simple Gifts, Spiritual Ineptitude, and the God Gene

Lately, I've been thinking about spiritual gifts and whether some people possess some kind of intrinsically faithful/spiritual nature.

My mom is so naturally faithful, she started walking by herself to the local Christian church when she was five or so.  She joined the LDS church at age thirteen (when her parents finally consented) after several years of investigating.  My dad, a twenty-plus year investigator and now a convert of seven years, bases the foundations of his testimony on his assertion that a man with as little education as Joseph Smith could never have written the Book of Mormon and all that.  (He says he's grown beyond just that, but it's still an important component.)  He does not read scriptures.  It is difficult to describe his naturally unspiritual take on life.

I guess I'm somewhere in the middle, but I lean more toward my dad's side.  I fundamentally believe in Jesus Christ and the atonement as presented in LDS theology (perhaps because of my upbringing).  But I think my devotion (in all its wavering) is primarily based in intellectual interest.  I enjoy putting the pieces of deep doctrine together, reading the scriptures and extrapolating meaning, understanding context by studying church history (warts and all).  It's the philosophizing that is so agreeable to me.  Seminary was a joy, because I had an extraordinarily well-versed scriptorian and theologian for a teacher.  I prefer the Bible to the Book of Mormon because it is far more poetic and not nearly so cut and dry; I enjoy ambiguous biblical philosophy infinitely more that dull, re-hashed Book of Mormon storyline.

Add to all that that I have never received any kind of revelation.  Not even in my most faithful days.  I prayed then, to receive a witness of the Book of Mormon, to get guidance for life, to know who I should choose for my counselors in whichever position . . . but I've never gotten anything.  I remember crying at one of those overly-emotional youth meetings as I bore my testimony and mentioned that I "have trouble receiving revelation."  I remember another time at institute when some guy recited the first vision from JSH 1:17-19 in like Mandarin or something.  After he did that, he said "now, even though that was in a different language, didn't you still feel the Spirit as I spoke, testifying of the truthfulness of the story?"  My mind answered with a blatant, "Um, no."  I asked my friend about it later, but she insisted she had felt spiritual confirmation during the recitation.  And that was when I believed Joseph Smith was nigh unto deity.  (Hint: I no longer believe that.  Not even close.)

Perhaps I exaggerate.  Perhaps the extent of my revelatory experiences is limited to following my moral compass.  It goes thusly: "God is no respecter of persons."  I like that.  That resonates with my deeply-held belief that all people are equal.  I believe that to be true.  Or: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife . . . so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing."  Hmm.  If God really insists that I be subservient to my husband, I would rather go to hell.  This scripture goes against every fiber of my being.  I believe this is a load of crap.  In other words, I feel happy when I hear philosophies I like, and I feel bad when I hear philosophies I don't like.  And I hear a lot of both in LDS theology (as well as other belief systems).

Of those classic faith-promoting stories, however, what with bosom burning, distinct feelings, any evidence of divine communication, I've got nothing.  Now you may be thinking that because I'm having a faith transition, I'm moving backwards and "losing that which I had."  You may think that I've just forgotten.  But I haven't.  As illustrated in the stories above, I was struggling with this even in my Molliest, Mormoniest days.  And you devoted followers will remember my vain struggle for confirmation of my marital decision.

I was talking to my husband about this the other day.  He was describing some profound revelatory experiences in his family, including visions, dreams, prophesying, strong impressions, answers to prayers, etc.  Many of these were his own.  When I expressed dismay due to my dearth of revelation, he suggested that perhaps I just lack the spiritual gift of receiving revelation.  When I shared this possibility with a good friend of mine, she told me not to write myself off as spiritually inept - that it takes a lifetime to understand the way God speaks to us.

So here's my question: is it possible that I am spiritually incapable of having miraculous revelatory experiences?  Is it necessary to have some kind of spiritual gift to receive revelation?

Mormons believe that everyone has spiritual gifts of one kind or another.  These may include gifts of faith, healing, prophecy, discernment, knowledge, miracles, etc.  It is acknowledged that there are more spiritual gifts than are listed in any of our religious texts.  As the scriptures say, different people have different gifts; some people have more and some have less.  If this is true, then I must have at least one spiritual gift in there somewhere.  I've wondered if perhaps I have the gift of charity (if that's even one of them), but usually that one makes me more disaffected with my religion than less.  What I need right now is some kind of faith-promoting gift.

I have skimmed some genome-wide association studies linking the ability to have spiritual experiences with genetics.  I wonder about the possibility of genetically-encoded spiritual gifts.  Could it be that my genes have predisposed me to a life of disgruntled, unaffirmed doubting and floundering?  Are spiritual gifts even real?  Do you, dear reader, believe in spiritual gifts, spiritual experiences, or the possibility of communication with God?  If these things are real, then where are my spiritual gifts, and how long do I have to suffer until I find them?  If ever I was in need of revelation, it's now.


Joanna said...

If it makes you feel any better, I think there must be a lot of other people (myself included) who haven't ever really gotten distinct spiritual impressions or clear answers to prayer. I for one have often felt like I was in the minority, but I'm guessing those stories (or lack thereof) just aren't as impressive to hear about in Sunday School as visions and promptings are. But I think I'm in a somewhat similar situation as you--I can feel peace or love that I believe comes through the Spirit, but I've never gotten so much as a clear yes/no to a question I've asked (even when it's something like marriage on the line!), and I've certainly never gotten a specific prompting, like when people talk about feeling that they should go visit someone, and because of that, they find out their friend was in dire need or something. Definitely no dreams and visions.

And for a long time I thought that I just wasn't doing a good enough job at being spiritual, or that I just had to work harder and figure out how to identify those feelings (since surely they were there, but I just wasn't experienced enough to actually distinguish them). But maybe a year ago, I started realizing that maybe the reason God doesn't speak to me in distinct answers and promptings is that He trusts me to do the right thing without all that. It actually makes me feel really good to think that God trusts me to use my intellect, my ability to reason, my drive to do what's right, and the principles I've been taught to do the right thing and to be useful in His kingdom. And besides that, who am I to say that God isn't speaking to me in the language of reason and in the insights that I thought were my own?

But anyway. I just wanted to let you know that although my situation isn't 100% the same as yours, you're still not alone. And thanks for writing this post--feeling "less spiritual" than other people is a really hard thing to talk about.

Unknown said...
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gb5 said...

I totally agree with Joanna. I think that it can be easy to dismiss revelation as just our own reasoning or desire to do what is right. In Moroni chapter 8 of the Book of Mormon, Moroni teaches that anything that inspires us to do good, to love God and to serve him is inspired of God. Whether this inspiration is perceived some kind of spiritual "prompting" or just good judgement, I don't think it really matters. All knowledge, good judgement, inspiration, revelation, correct reasoning, or whatever else you want to call it all comes from the same source anyway. I think a good universal term for all this could be "light."

Whether this light comes in the form of unexplainable feelings such as the common Mormon term "burning in the bosom" or just as knowing what is right and wanting to do that, I think it is really all the same in the end.

I don't know if you know who is writing this, but we know each other personally. Ever since I have known you have stuck out to me as a person who sincerely cares about others and has a unusually solid understanding of what is right and what is wrong and who knows how to make and stick to decisions based on that understanding. I personally believe that these are very rare and valuable spiritual gifts.

Could it be that what you feel as a lack of revelation is really just God speaking to you in ways that He knows is best for you based on your own specific needs as an unusually loving, wise individual?

By the way, I appreciate you talking about this. I have recently been through a "faith transition" myself, and while I think mine was for different reasons that yours, it was my experience that such things don't last forever. If we can just hang on to the knowledge and understanding that we do have, even if that means having to rely on past memories and experiences instead of present ones for awhile, the doubts and floundering pass and we emerge stronger and wiser on the other side.

Brittany said...

Jenna, this is Brittany Austin. I'm pretty sure the last time I talked to you was a couple of years ago, but I followed a link you posted to your blog a few months ago. I can't say enough about what you're writing here. As a woman in the Church who feels similarly, thanks for your honesty. Thank you so much for your honesty.

As for the question at hand, I agree with the other commenters. I've found that there are so many ways to "feel the Spirit" and to receive personal revelation, and most of them aren't taught in Sunday School or at the pulpit. You said that so much of your testimony is based on intellectual invigoration--I feel the same. So why can't that stimulation be a signal of truth? I would say that anything that invigorates my mind is a good thing--even a true thing.

Thanks again. I love what you're doing here.

Frank Pellett said...

Don't write yourself off yet. As the others have already pointed out, there are lots of ways to get spiritual guidance that do not include bosom burning or burning bushes. There is also the spiritual gift of believing that is often overlooked:

To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful. (D&C 46:14)