This morning one of my favorite songs replayed in the background of my mind as I woke up and I was intrigued by a single line from the lyrics. The song written by Jack Murphy & Frank Wildhorn is called “Little Things,” and it got me thinking about sincerity. “It’s the honest way you ask how I’m feeling,” is a line in the song that suggests that some questions may be less ingenuous. It also suggests that our intent can be audible and recognizable in the way we say something. It’s not just what we say, but what we mean when we say it.
Despite my efforts to be considerate this morning, my “getting ready” routine disturbed my wife’s sleep and I woke her up. Before I kissed her goodbye I asked how she was feeling. I like to think that my concern for her was sincere. I hoped that she felt what I was feeling, which is a deep, deep love for her. Had I been less sincere, I could have asked the question with little intent to do anything. Since perfection is a quality I haven’t managed to wrangle yet, I hope the times I do so are at least few and far between.
I can think of a couple occasions this past week where I asked this same question of two other friends. The circumstances were quite different, but my sincerity was no less than when I spoke to my wife. I care deeply. My question of regard was offered with the hope that it would be received like it was in the song. More than a gesture of courtesy, it was offered as an act of friendship with real intent.
In most conversations that I have, the question, “How are you feeling?” seems to be more common than, “What are you feeling?” I wonder, culturally, if this is because feelings tend to be a little more private. The first question is a simple closed-ended question that is great for small talk. It can easily be answered with a reply of, “good,” or, “not so well,” end of story. The second question, however, may be a little more difficult.
Asking someone, “What are you feeling?” would imply that the person being asked is actually feeling something at the moment. The question would also presume that he or she would know exactly what they were feeling, which is often hard to do. Words seem to make more sense than emotions when we try to describe them, don’t you think? Perhaps the difficult part of this question is the position it puts the person in who is being asked. For instance, if someone asked you that question – a question which happens to be more open-ended – you are forced to make a decision. Do I want to share what I am feeling, or should I say, “it it’s none of your business?” Suddenly the person being asked is put on the spot to make a judgment call of what is too personal and what is not. When feelings and emotions are hard enough to decipher inside your head, having to account for it on the outside can be even more troubling. Agreed? Then, let’s take a closer look at the first question.
Most of the time when I ask, “How are you feeling?” my intent is to know, “Are you well,” or “Are you feeling better?” The question seems most appropriate when the outward appearance is less than obvious, or when the person I am talking to is obviously not feeling as well as he or she could. There are outward indicators that things could be better, if only by a little. Even in these instances, my concern for a friend is generally about their physical feelings, or their emotional feelings. I think, in all reality, there should be a greater concern for spiritual feelings.
Here’s another potentially awkward moment. What if the question, “How are you feeling?” was not intended to be lightly conversational. Another for-instance, what if the person doing the asking meant, “How is your ability to feel?” “Are you capable of feeling spiritual things?” “Do you know how to recognize the promptings of the Holy Ghost when they come?” “Do you… .” Anyway, you get the idea. Suddenly small talk turns in to an interrogation, and the second question by comparison doesn’t look so bad. Talk about awkward. Is it too late to switch questions? If someone asks, “What are you feeling,” I can at least answer, “I’m not sure,” and be completely honest.
The reality of the matter is that most people who believe in inspiration from the Holy Ghost are often unclear about what the inspiration means. Yes, I receive inspiration through my thoughts and feelings, but I don’t always know for sure if it is inspiration or not. I’m not always certain about the meaning or if I am reading my own biases into it. Sometimes it is as though I feel something that might actually mean something, but I’m not sure. Now I’ve gone from feeling awkward to frustrated. What is worse is when I have to make a decision that feels time-sensitive, meaning, I don’t have time to sit and wait around for a sign from heaven. That’s probably a good thing because those signs seldom come.
Choosing to ask myself these same questions in the privacy of my own mind may not be the most comfortable pastime, but it is better than experiencing feelings of doubt when I am in the middle of a crisis and I am in need of heavenly help. I would rather answer questions when I have a comfortable amount of time to do so. Then I can feel better about how I am feeling and what I am feeling. I believe that each of us experience moments of clarity and moments of ambiguity. Separating what we know from what we don’t know can provide a good start.
Moments of clarity for me include those times when I either feel the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit strongly, and I know why. While I am not perfect, there are times that I feel the witness of the Holy Ghost that I am at least worthy, that my efforts to do what God wants have been accepted. I haven’t arrived yet, but I am moving in the right direction. I feel at peace as I feel the presence and influence of the Comforter. That is a wonderful feeling to experience on occasion.
There are other times when I know I feel the spirit, but I don’t feel the peaceful confirmation that I am doing the right thing. Instead I am being reprimanded or chastised. I don’t have to commit a serious sin, I just have to do something that is wrong and the Holy Ghost will warn me of the error I have just made. His influence may not leave, but I have the warning that it will if I don’t correct my mistake and turn my heart to God. Very often, this subtle feeling is no more than a hunch. It’s as though the good feeling I had is diminished but with the option to have it back should I make the right choice. If I am not sincere, and do not have real intent, it will be very apparent to God how I am feeling about His promptings. If I persist in thinking that my way is better and I don’t give heed to the prompting, I start to diminish in my ability to feel spiritual things. This either leads to a moment of ambiguity or the last moment of clarity.
This last moment of clarity I have experienced comes when I have deliberately made the wrong choice. I knew it and I did what I wanted anyway. In those moments, I have felt the influence of the spirit leave and I am left alone because I was prideful or rebellious. In those moments, I knew it, and it was clear. Those are very uncomfortable moments, but they are still a gift when they help me to change.
Separating what you know from what you don’t know before you get to a crisis, not only helps organize your understanding, it can also provide some patterns that may help sort out the times that are less clear. The similarities between these moments of clarity and ambiguity may give enough reason to have a little more faith when we don’t know for sure.
I believe a very common moment of ambiguity is when a person receives inspiration and doesn’t realize it. If the gift of the Holy Ghost is intended to be a constant influence and companion, I do not doubt that someone who is living a Christ-like life is constantly benefiting from inspiration. Just because I don’t recognize it doesn’t mean that I am not receiving it. I would like to be better at recognizing those subtle promptings for what they are so I can include my gratitude for them in my prayers of thanks. I find the more I look the more I find. Watching helps, but I am often uncertain.
Another moment of ambiguity is very similar, when I think I have received some sort of inspiration but I am not positive what the feeling means. I have a hunch that I am supposed to do something, but I am not exactly sure what, and I’m not exactly sure why. It is just a simple hunch accompanied by somewhat familiar feeling.
The moment of ambiguity that I am most familiar with is when I am seeking inspiration and I don’t feel like I am getting what I need. I hope for guidance and all I feel is uncertainty. In those moments, it is as though I am surrounded by a fog. I wrestle in prayer and I don’t feel like I get any closer to an answer. I am left to my own strength for a time, wondering if my fog is a consequence of my own behavior. I think this is the most difficult ambiguity because it is the one where I feel the most alone – I feel as though I am going through a trial by myself. To some degree this is true.
In this last case, it helps to remember that God has promised not to leave those who are faithful. Rather, He has promised to prepare the way before us, to support us in our trials, and bear us up in our afflictions. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean that He is not doing it. This requires a greater demonstration of faith on our part. I believe it is in this moment of ambiguity where we experience the greatest potential for personal growth. This is where many of my personal tests can be found. Anticipating this will help prepare our minds and our hearts to be tested.
When I feel that the influence of the Holy Spirit has left me alone, the first thing I do is a safety check. It’s like putting on your seat belt as soon as you get into a car. It becomes a habit. If I feel the absence of that peaceful comforting feeling, the first thing I do is ask myself, “Have I done something that would cause the spirit to withdraw?” Remember, to keep the spirit with us always requires a willingness to remember the teachings of Jesus and to follow Him. We don’t have to be perfect, we just have to be willing and worthy. This says more about where our hearts are pointed than where they are at. If I don’t feel that I have been deliberately rebellious, I move to the next step in my safety check.
At times when I feel alone because I do not feel the spirit close to me, the next condition I check is to see if I feel discouraged. There is a big difference between feeling down and discouraged and feeling guilty because we know we have done something wrong. If I have done something wrong, the spirit will usually help me to see the problem. Occasionally I will feel down and discouraged, not because the Lord feels I have done something wrong, but because I haven’t achieved the expectations I have set for myself. It is not uncommon to be harder on yourself than others would. We simply can’t do everything all at once, and it isn’t required. King Benjamin taught, “it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” (Mosiah 4:27)
I have learned that the Holy Ghost is consistent. When I feel the spirit, I always feel uplifted and edified. Even when I have done something wrong, and I am chastened by the Holy Spirit, His influence will guide me to see a way out. He always directs me upward. The Lord told Joseph Smith, “And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy; And then shall ye know, or by this shall you know, all things whatsoever you desire of me, which are pertaining unto things of righteousness, in faith believing in me that you shall receive.” (Doctrine & Covenants 11:12-14)
If I have passed the rebellious check, and I am not feeling guilty because I have been chastened by the spirit, I proceed to the next safety check: How is my faith? It is my experience that the spirit will leave if we have done something to offend God, or if we have ignored his subtle promptings. There may be times that we don’t feel the spirit as strongly because our desires, appetites, and passions are screaming louder and we give deference to them. But if I am trying to do what is right, and I still don’t feel the spirit, I find that my ambiguity is about to get clearer. The key comes down to a couple of simple keys that were illustrated in the song I woke up to. It’s in the honest way I ask myself how I am feeling. Am I being sincere when I say that I am trying to do what is right? Do I have real intent to follow God? Is there anything I have overlooked that is blocking my faith? When I am truly honest with God, He is more open with me.
Most of the time when I feel ambiguous about where I stand with God, or I wonder why I haven’t felt his Holy Spirit as well as at other times, it is because I am in the middle of a test, and I am about to finish. It is often at the moment when I feel I can’t go any longer or any further that a change begins to happen. It is in the moment when I am willing to submit my will to God and do whatever He wants that my tests usually resolve and I gain understanding. Moroni taught, “for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” (Ether 12:6)
Moroni also taught, “I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4-5)
Our intent is very recognizable to God in the way we offer our prayers. It’s not just what we say, but what we mean when we say it. He knows what we need before we even ask. He also knows what will help us the most. Even when we feel we have learned what we need to in a trial, God knows best. He has prepared lessons that are specifically tailored to save His children. Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean we should doubt. As we put our faith in Him, he will not fail us, but will stay with us until we make it home.
So what is it I am feeling? That is really up to me to determine for myself. However the pattern that God has given us is that the Holy Spirit will guide us when we are faithful. If we are consistent in following Him, He will provide moments of clarity amidst the moments of ambiguity. It may not be enough to know for a certainty all the things we want to know, but it will be enough to help us to have faith in Him. Once we do that, and once we learn how to recognize the influence of His Holy Spirit when it is present, then we can feel much better about any trial we are asked to pass through.