Discerning the Spirit

Perhaps, like me, you have attended a sacrament meeting and heard lackluster talks with retread stories, out of context scriptures and “faith promoting rumors.” Then in the concluding wrap up the bishop comments on how strongly he “felt the Spirit” in the meeting. You, on the other hand, felt only a gray thud. So who’s right? Was the Spirit “there” or wasn’t it?

The frequent guilt inducing chaser is the admonition that if you don’t feel the Spirit in a meeting you didn’t bring it with you, or you were not “in tune” and/or you need to repent.

Perhaps, you have attended M.o.o.F.s (Meetings of other Faiths) where you were profoundly moved by the Spirit reminding you of gospel truths that our F.o.o.F.s (Friends of other Faiths) share. Perhaps you leave that meeting wondering why it’s been so long since you were similarly fed in a Mormon meeting.

I remember some years ago when the youth of our ward reported on a trip to Independence, Missouri. More than one of them said they “didn’t feel the Spirit” in the Community of Christ temple. Why not, I wonder. Doesn’t God bathe the world in the evidence of the Spirit for “those who have eyes to see?” Have we programmed ourselves, our youth, our new members to believe there really is some kind of spiritual litmus test for indicating when the Spirit is present? And that it will ONLY be present in LDS meetings?

As I’ve served in the Relief Society I have had teachers come to me frantically afterward, afraid that they didn’t feel the spirit in the room when they taught. Yet I did. Or at least what I count as feeling it.

I don’t think that “Was the Spirit there?” is a useful question. The Spirit effects us each so personally and what may resonate with one person may fall flat for another for reasons that have little to do with worthiness and everything to do with God’s relationship with that person. And our own anxieties, fatigue, hunger, seratonin level, etc.

On the other hand, I am not an advocate of the watered-down relativism of today’s prevalent creed: “what works for me is as good as what works for you.” I don’t see how any one claiming to be a Christan, not to mention a Mormon Christian, can accept that. Jesus Christ, who presents himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, was not namby-pamby on the issue of that absolute.

Is the Spirit’s presence something that we may not be able to define easily but, to borrow a phrase from an unlikely source, we know it when we see (or in this case feel or experience) it?

How do you distinguish? How do you teach the concept? How have you “felt” it? Where, when? This whole business of discerning the Spirit is mysterious and frustrating and a lifetime’s holy work.


  1. This is a great post. I am not sure that I know what causes me to feel the Spirit. I think that living my life in congruence with my own value system is important. That isn’t necessarily the same thing as the church value system. I need to be striving to make the world a better place. I need to be being kind and compassionate to others. I feel the Spirit the most when I have helped to lift someone’s burden. A few weeks ago at church I was talking to a friend. Through the course of the conversation I learned how much this friend had been suffering. I spent a few hours talking to her afterward. I think I am the first woman she has been able to talk to in months. I know I felt the Spirit there. I know I needed to be there to listen to her because she was at the end of her rope.

    I am not sure that I could ever teach someone about it. I am curious to see what others have to say.

  2. One of my great frustrations is that I hardly ever feel the spirit – at least not like so many other people who testify that “the spirit was strong” for whatever meeting. One of the only times I can pinpoint feeling a true communion with God and spirit was when I was in a United Church of Christ meeting.

    Because I have such a hard time ‘feeling the spirit’ I’ve come to decide that my conscience must be the spirit to some degree. So I listen to my gut and my inner sense of justice and go with that.

  3. It took me almost my entire mission to learn to really feel the spirit. It was a very hard thing to learn for me. I suppose in a nutshell it boils down to learning to be humble and accept what the spirit tells me. For so long, I only wanted to do and react to impressions that were in line with my personal feelings. Letting the spirit teach me – and sometimes chasten me – was a hard pill to swallow at first. It took alot of prayer and meditation to finally come to the point where I was able to let myself be taught.

  4. Very nice post! I’ve always thought that saying things like “the Spirit is the teacher” is basically another way of removing responsibility for providing a good lesson. Since the Spirit is so personal, I think there are two basic things you can do:

    1) Say what inspires you to feel the Spirit.

    2) Don’t unnecessarily screw up the talk with poor preparation or presentation. I don’t know how much a speaker can invite the Spirit, but he or she can certainly make it tougher for others to feel anything worthwhile.

    Tanya and Caroline, I have basically the same experiences in many ways.

  5. Thanks for this, Linda– I’ve always felt kind of inferior at church since I don’t often feel the spirit there that many others seem to feel. And, since I’m kind of a white knuckle traveler, I always seem to think that perhaps I’ve got a prompting that I shouldn’t go on a particular trip… but all those “promptings” seem to have just been nerves, since I’m still here. I’m not saying that to be mocking, just to say that some of us seem to be naturally un-endowed with the ability to separate promptings from our own emotions.

  6. One thing I feel very guilty about is my propensity to be suspicious of other women who claim to feel the Spirit constantly. The Spirit tells them to move; they move. I think my willingness to judge them harshly says far more about me than about them.
    I do know that my most sacred experiences have happened either in the Temple or in very humble surroundings. Many of them have happened in Spanish, and when I speak it, there is something in me which changes subtlely, as though readying itself for another holy moment.

  7. I think the Spirit can be felt anywhere that truth is being taught, including other churches. I have also sat in Sunday School classes where I didn’t feel the Spirit at all. As the Sunday School President, I have tried to help teaches make better plans for preparing and teaching lessons. I think too often the lesson becomes a history lesson instead of a Spiritual experience, and I think that makes it less likely to feel the Spirit in a great degree.

    Tanya Sue, what is the difference between your value system and the value system of the Church? Everything you mentioned seems like things the Church would support as well. In fact, several of the examples of your value system seem to parallel nicely with scriptures in the Bible and Book of Mormon. I’m just curious where it is you think the Church value system and your value system take different paths.

  8. Wes,

    I cannot speak for Tanya Sue, but I can offer my own experience in which my value system departs from the church. One of my core values is treating people equally. Values like honesty, love, humility, etc. line up quite nicely. However, I must gingerly (because I know this is a hot topic and probably why Tanya Sue did not explicitly state it) state that from the depths of my soul I do not feel that the current status of women in the church is right. I know plenty of arguments on both sides, and I don’t intend to cause a debate. I simply mean to answer your question and say that for many women, myself included, that is one point on which our values depart from those of the church.

  9. amyb,

    I appreciate your response. I do not have any malice or ill intention with anything I say here. I love my sisters in the church as well as my sisters out of the church and I struggle with their concerns often. But if we were to remove group labels and speak of ourselves as individuals, I could say that it isn’t fair that I am only an Elder. I want to be a High Priest or the Bishop. When will it be my turn to be Stake President. In all honesty, I will probably never be the Stake President or the Bishop. Even though other men may be, why should that console me if I want the position. You may feel unjustly dealt with because you will never (perhaps) be a bishop, but there are thousands of men in this church who will never be bishops, presidents or anything more than Sunday school or primary teachers. I know that is not a perfect analogy when speaking of groups, but I think it is instructive when we speak of individuals.

    Again, let me say that I have some sympathy for your concern. If the Lord or His prophet stated tomorrow that women will now be ordained to the Priesthood, it wouldn’t take me a nano-second to accept and be grateful for a living church.

  10. Wes, I am very hesitant to enter into this discussion, because it is not the intention of the post. At the same time, I have great difficulty leaving it alone when it comes up, and my will power is weak at the moment. I do appreciate your thoughtful response.

    The issue for me is not that I can never be bishop, or stake president or mission president or sunday school president,etc. it’s that I can never have a female bishop or other ecclesiastical leader. Women’s voices as a whole are silenced. It is not about individual aspirations for me, but about enormous imbalance of voices in policymaking and ability to contribute to the institution in leadership roles, as well the lack of autonomy in the women’s organizations.

    This is a hot topic, and I really don’t want to hijack Linda’s lovely post any further (sorry I did it the first time!). I’d be happy to carry on a private email discussion – email the exii blog and we can continue that way. Or we can leave it where it is and be contented with our different opinions. Best wishes to you either way.

  11. Wes,
    That is an interesting analogy. But as you know, it doesn’t quite work with the women and priesthood problem. Because you have the potential in this life to be high priest, bishop, stake president, or even president of the church. You are not precluded from these positions because of your biology. Whereas women, because of their biology, not only do not hold these leadership callings, we can’t even pass, bless the sacrament, or baptize.

    What you say about a man wanting to be high priest or bishop is like me or anyone other U.S citizen saying life is unfair because they want to be president of the U.S and are not. Sure, it probably won’t happen, but at least people aren’t automatically prevented from aspiring to that because of their sex.

    But I do appreciate your sympathy and civil tone.

  12. Thanks to those who responded. I enjoy thoughtful and civilized discussion. I try to put myself in your position and I don’t know what to say. I suppose I would be frustrated too.

  13. This is a subject that my husband and I have discussed at great length recently, and has disturbed me enough to bring me out of my perennial lurker status . . .

    Although I felt the spirit fairly frequently and clearly whenI was younger, i struggled, from the age of seven, with the whole issue of women’s role in the church. Despite frequent fasting, prayer and study, I never found an answer to my questions about gender and the church. So I put the issue ‘on the shelf’ to hopefully understand at a later date. I had a testimony, but that was despite how wrong women’s role in the church felt to me.

    That worked fine until I married at 30. Suddenly I went from being a young single adult, which is a sort of unique status, somewhat outside of the traditional female role espoused by the church, to a full-blown, mormon wife and mother, with all the accompanying frustrating baggage that goes along with it for me. Within a year of marrying, my ability to feel the spirit completely fell apart. I finally had to deal with the fact that I belonged to, and even believed in, a church that I felt sees women in some nebulous second class status.

    Now, I know this is a sensitive subject and I’m really not trying to thread jack. Heaven knows many blogs have been hopping with the gender quetion lately. That’s not really what I’m trying to discuss. However, for me, the lack of spirit I feel ties directly into the frustration, anger, disappointment and betrayal I feel with respect to gender issues. How can I possibly expect the spirit to get through all that baggage and anger?

    So, in answer to the original question, I guess I just usually don’t feel the spirit. Not anymore. The few times I do feel it is when I’m listening to music, or interacting with my children. Or one of those few moments when the world suddenly seems to move into focus, and I see things from an eternal perspective. But they happen so rarely now that I’m feeling spiritually lost.

  14. Anonymous, I totally understand.

    I also think that my sadness/pain/anger over women’s status in the church keeps me from being as spiritual as I might have been otherwise.

    I even have a hard time praying to Heavenly Father, because it just seems so unfair and wrong that I can’t also include our Mother in my prayers. So I don’t really pray very often anymore, and I’m sure that if I were more constantly reaching out to diety, I’d feel the spirit more often.

  15. Anonymous and Caroline – I wonder if the dissonance you feel is actually the presence of the Spirit of Truth *you* feel bumping up against the church traditions that continue to debase and devalue women. We need not presume that we are the ones not feeling spirit. Trust yourself, ladies.

  16. dude, if i didn’t feel it, i didn’t feel it–simple as that. i think the best litmus test is myself.

    AND! i kinda dig retread crap in Relief Society & Sunday School because that is an extremely fecund arena where i can challenge all the f–king robot teachers and answers who don’t have the Spirit but sure like to pretend they do (and all along at home they are THE WORST, most uninteresting spouses or the most unkind, hypocritical, close minded S.O.B.’s who come to church “to be seen of men”).

    Great litmus test.

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