The Holy Spirit Broke My Shelf

When people talk about what broke the shelf where they place their doubts about the church they often refer to things like the priesthood and temple ban, inconsistencies in church history, polygamy, women’s role in the church, treatment of LGBTQ individuals, and other valid concerns.

I certainly had a lot of those things on my shelf. The shelf was noticeably sagging. But I’d been able to prop it up for a while. Mine was a shelf well accustomed to doubt – perhaps even forged in doubt.

And then along came Pneumatology AKA the Doctrine of The Holy Spirit.

I participate in a Ladies Bible study with a local nondenominational church. They are welcoming of people from all religious traditions, but they are rooted in Baptist theology. I spent some time living in the South and the women in this Bible study group reminds me of the women I hung out with there. They freely proclaim their love for Jesus and the Bible and I love hearing that.

In 2022 the group leaders decided to focus on Systematic Theology for the year. Rather than read a particular book of scripture we read a textbook style book. It was divided into chapters that focused on specific topics like Bibliology (Doctrine of the Bible), Christology (Doctrine of Christ), Theology Proper (Doctrine of God), Hamartiology (Doctrine of Sin), and many other topics with hard to pronounce names. Each chapter examined the topic using scripture and various theological opinions.

I was becoming a bit of a theology nerd so I really enjoyed the deep dive. I found it enlightening to examine my thoughts on subjects like Biblical Inerrancy, the Trinity, sin, angels, etc. I found it very helpful to examine these things from a different perspective. When things weren’t in line with LDS Theology or my own personal beliefs I could acknowledge the differences and move on. 

Until the chapter on Pneumatology.

By this point my schedule had changed so I wasn’t able to attend Bible study. The study leader had become a dear friend so she and I would meet up at a coffee shop to discuss the reading. She’d order a coffee, I’d order a hot chocolate, we’d catch up on our lives, and then dig into theology. Our discussions were always friendly and respectful. We liked comparing and contrasting the finer points of our religious traditions.

We’d been talking about the Holy Spirit for almost an hour when we came upon a huge theological rift – one that we hadn’t realized existed. Keep in mind I’d read nearly 35 pages about Pneumatology and hadn’t picked up on this.

Our religious cultures had completely different interpretations of when the gift of the Holy Spirit came upon a Christian.

In LDS doctrine the gift of the Holy Ghost is confirmed on someone AFTER baptism. In my friend’s religious tradition the indwelling of the Holy Spirit comes BEFORE baptism.

We had a long discussion about the differences we’d discovered. I talked about how LDS teachings said that someone could have the temporary help of the Holy Ghost before they joined the church, but that it I was taught that the gift of the Holy Ghost is only given by the laying on of hands by men with priesthood authority.

My friend countered with saying that the laying in of hands was only done in Acts to prove to the Jewish Christians that the church could be expanded to the Samaritans and Gentiles. In most cases the Spirit was given freely and without the need of human help. She pointed out that the Holy Spirit is what teaches people of Christ and confirms that they are a Christian. The spirit comes to you and can never leave you.

This rocked me. So much of LDS teachings talk about not losing the spirit or living worthy of the Spirit. But my friend explained that her church believes the gift of the Holy Spirit can never be lost. It’s presence is what changes you to believe in Christ and follow him. After that you are forever sealed to him. If you do sin again the Spirit will work in you to convict you of your sin and turn you back to Christ.

I felt some deep shifts in me as I contemplated the implications. I wasn’t sure I believed every point my friend was bringing up. But I knew that I could never again be scared of my decisions causing the Holy Ghost to leave me. Phrases like, ‘The Holy Ghost goes to bed at midnight” Or “That movie will chase the spirit away” suddenly seemed problematic.

I’d brought the LDS Gospel Principles Manual for reference. It was so small compared the the theology book. The chapter on the gift of the Holy Ghost was only 3 pages long. At some point I pulled out the manual and read from it.

The manual said, “A person may be temporarily guided by the Holy Ghost without receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. However this guidance will not be continuous unless the person is baptized and receives the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Gospel Principles Chapter 21 under the heading “The Gift of the Holy Ghost”)

After I read that my friend asked me, with a half smile and good natured tone of voice, “wait, do you believe that I don’t have the gift of the Holy Spirit?”

And that’s when my shelf broke. Here was this woman, my dear friend, who had been a spiritual pillar in my life for the last year. I was supposed to believe that she DIDN’T have the gift of the Holy Ghost because she didn’t belong to my church?

That conversation lingered with me for days. I found myself pondering questions like:

  • What does it mean if members of LDS church didn’t have exclusive access to the gift of the Holy Spirit?
  • Was the church using its pretend hold on the Holy Ghost to keep members in the church?
  • Were members scared of leaving and losing the Spirit?

I’m still working through these questions and the implications. Honestly, this topic has threads that run to every other topic of my church/spiritual life. This is not something I can easily work out.

All I know is that my shelf full of doubts broke and it was questions about the Holy Spirit that broke it.

I’ve begun sorting through the contents of my spiritual shelf that spilled when it fell. I’ve started rebuilding the shelf. It’s no longer a place where I put my questions about the church. It’s a place where I put the things I am sure about. Everything else can just stay on the floor.

As I’ve been going through things, I found the old box where I used to keep the Holy Ghost. 

It’s a tiny box. It was given to me when I was eight years old. I was told it was a special box that only members of my church could have. It was a box that relegated the third member of the Godhead to something of a compass. The compass showed me where to go and helped me find lost things. If I didn’t live right the compass didn’t work.

I don’t keep the Holy Ghost/Spirit in that box anymore. The Spirit is outside of the box. The Holy Spirit is living in me and in other people. And many of those people are not members of my church. I’m letting the Holy Ghost lead me to Jesus, to teach me of Jesus. I feel its presence guiding me as I build a deeper relationship with God. I listen to it to help me know when I hear truth.

There are many things I don’t know about my long term relationship with the LDS church. I still have a lot of doubts. But I don’t miss that sagging shelf that was piled with doubts. I’m glad the Holy Spirit broke it.

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash
Ann has a Bachelor's Degree in Economics and recently earned a second one in Accounting. Contrary to what some people told her, she has been able to use the degrees while raising her four children.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this topic. I think we so under appreciate the Holy Spirit and how it works in everyone’s life. My mind was blown similarly by 3 Nephi 19:9. They are in the presence of the Savior – yet what they MOST desire is the gift of the Holy Ghost. I ponder that frequently. I recently read an interview with Bednar and he reminds us that the confirmation of the Holy Ghost means it is a CONSTANT companion. Our language on this – which you nail – is so flawed. The Spirit is ALWAYS there. We might not be turning to it or listening to the promptings in moments of spiritual brattiness, but the Holy Spirit is just there!!

    • Yes! I love how you put it, “The Spirit is ALWAYS there. We might not be turning to it or listening to the promptings in moments of spiritual brattiness, but the Holy Spirit is just there!!”

  2. Oh my goodness I finally have a word I have needed my whole adult life: pneumatology! For decades I’ve been complaining that the LDS doctrine of the Gift of the Holy Ghost MAKES NO SENSE. Which is pretty problematic given the prominence of the 4th Article of Faith. And I rarely find anyone who is troubled in the same way as I have been. This post was a welcome breath of fresh air. Thank you Ann.

    • Tania, I’m so glad I could introduce you to the word Pneumatology. It was brand new to me too.

      And I agree, I rarely find anyone who is also troubled about the Gift of the Holy Ghost. We are given simplistic definitions and explanations, when really there is so much more to be explored.

      I think our church has tried so hard to create curriculum materials that can be understood by new converts that they have forgotten that there are many of us starving for more substance. As I’ve branched out and studied the Bible from a broader Christian view I’ve realized that there is so much more to be learned. Words like Pneumatology start to fill a gap that so many of us have in our doctrinal understanding.

    • I’ve been troubled too and have had so many questions! I also did not know that other people also think that LDS Holy Ghost doctrine doesn’t make sense.

  3. That sounds like a great group and very spiritually uplifting, engaging, and enlightenling. Isn’t it interesting that you could most likely NOT have a discussion like that in RS or SS?

    • It is a great group. I’ve been lucky to be part of it. I’ve often sat in Bible Study and wished for similar experiences in Relief Society and Sunday School.

  4. Yes! This! I love this post. Thank you so much. Would you mind sharing which theology book y’all studied from? I’m becoming a theology nerd too 😉

    • Certainly Laura. I’m glad you asked. The book is The Moody Handbook of Theology
      By Paul Enns. The Systematic Theology portion is Part Two which goes from chapters 17 to 26. I’ve meant to go back and read Parts One and Three, but I haven’t had the time yet.

      It’s a good book with a lot of really great information. But I feel like I have to give some caveats.

      Everything is written with a bit of a Protestant/Evangelical slant so keep that in mind if you read it. There are parts that will straight up denounce Catholic theology or other ideas that go against mainstream Protestant theology. So there are parts that can feel a little “cringy” if you read it for a broad religious view.
      The book asserts that viewing the Bible as inerrant is the only correct way to view scripture. This was a huge leap for my brain that grew up with the 8th Article of faith. Even though I can’t accept the Bible as totally inerrant I did grow in my appreciation for it by reading this book.
      Not every one agrees with every single conclusion the book comes to. There was a women in our group that often would say things like, “I’m not sure why the author used this wording or this definition.” Think of the book as a reference manual or a guide to a foreign country. It will explain things, but it’s not a 100% reflection of Protestant Christians.

      All that being said, it really is an interesting book for budding theology nerds.

      • Ann, thank you very much for your thorough explanation. I appreciate the heads up about the bias.

        The belief of the Bible’s inerrancy is very interesting to me. I too am not an inerrantist. I’ve found that listening to people defend that thinking and challenge that thinking has allowed my brain to make space for deconstructing the historicity and absolute truth claims of the Book of Mormon that I’ve been taught and caused my views about scripture in general to shift. There is much for us to learn outside of our faith about faith.

        I’ve been thinking about your post a lot the last view days and have enjoyed looking for the spirit in various places. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. I have found there is much confusion in the church between the light of Christ, the spirit, the Holy Ghost and the Gift of the Holy Ghost, etc. The baptism of fire and Holy Ghost is mentioned many times throughout the Book of Mormon, but if you read what is supposed to happen vs what happens in the church, it starts to become clear that we don’t have that in the church. This would be a good video to check out.

    • Thank you Sam. That video looks interesting, but I don’t know when I’ll have an hour and half to view it. Do you have a suggestion for a specific section of the video?

  6. Thankyou for an interesting post. To me, what you bring up is connected to both my personal and the Church’s expanding view of how God works in the world. Growing up, I used to think there was darkness everywhere except in the Church. I now know that God can’t afford to only use members of the Church to do his work. He is prepared to guide anyone who seeks to be guided, and uses people from different churches and religions to bring about good in the world. He will dispense truth and tasks as he sees fit in order to bless as many people as possible, in whatever situation they are in, or whatever their faith is. To me this is what the scripture means that says God speaks to people in their own language. That could also mean their conceptual language. I feel it is possible to both hold this belief and my belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the true restored Church of the Savior in my heart at the same time. Concerning our doctrine of the Holy Ghost, I have a suggestion for dealing with the seeming discrepancy between what the doctrine says — or what we perceive the doctrine says — and our experience with other people of faith, and it is this: It is possible that our doctrine of the Gift of the Holy Ghost is not fully understood or perhaps even fully revealed at this time. There can be more to know, as is true with most of the gospel. We are all invited and able to search out greater knowledge and understanding, without necessarily rejecting what we have.

  7. This is very interesting to me, because I’ve always believed this, and have been confused by LDS members who don’t. But perhaps my formative experiences with religion, being different, allowed me to come by my belief naturally. I was raised by converts, one of whom was student body president of the world’s largest Baptist university, who still saw a lot of value in their previous faith traditions. When the kids in my ward were terrible — on an often-to-always basis — my parents allowed me to attend Young Life, a nondenominational midweek faith program for youth, instead of Mutual, for years at a time. And, being raised largely in the South and with no real LDS relatives beyond my household, I suppose I naturally integrated LDS doctrine with the other doctrines that were presented to me — and, without real effort or thought — adopted a very “mixed breed” faith. Which is beautiful, and functional, and layered… and not necessarily codified in Mormon orthodoxy… and which may allow me a bit more peace when things don’t add up at church. Because I’m able to say, “Eh, every church and faith tradition is flawed and incomplete,” while pursuing a personal relationship with God that requires me to answer to nobody but Him, and serving others by being totally open with my alternate point of view. I don’t feel the need to leave the Church… and I also don’t feel the need to conform in all things (cultural, theological, or otherwise). And I’m glad for you that you’re coming to the same conclusion, with a little help from your differently-believing, equally-faithful friends.

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