Wolves and Sheep

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
(Matthew 7:15)

But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
(John 10:12)

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.
(Alma 5:59)

And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.
(Alma 5:60)

Pastoral images are used frequently in the Bible, often to describe the relationship between us and Christ, and particularly between Christ and his Church. John 10 and Alma 5 develop this image most fully, to slightly different ends: the principal point of John 10 hinges around the identity of the good shepherd; Alma 5 as to whether we are included with his sheep.

But there is another aspect to these images, as the quotes above illuminate: the existence of wolves.

Wolves are very real.

People can do a lot of damage. And others can be very vulnerable.

Wolves are also a very pertinent topic. I’ve seen in a number of places opposition to the idea that anyone has to deal with them, that some people are wolves at all, or that actions to exclude them – such as excommunication – are at all necessary. This opposition appears to me to be founded on several misconceptions:

The first is the idea that Christ himself would never exclude or judge. This itself is a myth, when it is Christ himself who will be our ultimate judge. I’ve written about this before.

The second is that in the Church the spreading of ideas should carry no consequence.  It is certainly the case that Wolves, human predators, can take a variety of forms. Physical, emotional, sexual or financial predators are all threats, and certainly many of the scriptural warnings above and the injunctions about protecting the flock (whatever flock that is) from wolves apply. Much of what I will say here would also apply. We should always aim to protect the innocent. But the first scripture quoted above has Christ warning particularly against “false prophets”, not these other categories of predators. We are warned in the latter days against “false teachers” and “false doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:12), and need to be vigilant in an age when men “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:50, 2 Nephi 15:20).

Ideas have consequences. They affect what we feel and what we do, and we will be held accountable for them. As the episcopal spirit is asked in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?” Alma likewise teaches that in addition to our words and works “our thoughts will also condemn us” (Alma 12:14). And there is a world of difference between someone who is personally wondering and questioning over what is true (something I am sure most must face at some stage) and someone campaigning to replace the teachings of the Church with their own ideas. That’s not questioning: they’ve already settled their own mind. Indeed they’re trying to remake Church doctrine in the image of their own mind. Nor, for that matter, are they making a great stand for openness and free thought when they demand their own precepts should enjoy immunity from criticism, but that they should be free as members of Christ’s church to denigrate its teachings.

They are, as individuals, free to campaign for whatever they wish. But the Church is under no obligation to act as a neutral witness, or act as a host for those who oppose its teachings. And when people teach others that certain sins are not sins, for example, or teach a denial of the resurrection, or teach disbelief in experiences (such as revelations and spiritual gifts) that are necessary for salvation, their teachings can lead others down to hell. Is there to be no accountability for this? Is the Church of God supposed to stand idly by and just watch the deception of the flock? Certain false teachings can lead to eternal damage, and the Church is under no obligation to permit people to use the cloak of Church membership to lead its members astray.

The third misconception is the idea that Christ taught us that we must never judge. It is certainly true that there are certain judgements we must leave to God, and eternal judgements are his prerogative. We are meant to focus upon our own sins, and in my experience we usually have enough to keep us busy. But Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to “judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1) is sorely misunderstood if we believe that means we must never judge (and we are in serious danger if we believe that frees us personally from any accountability). As the next verse shows, the point of the passage is that we will be judged by same standard we extend: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). Christ also teaches us to “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24), as does the JST of Matthew 7:1-2. Alma likewise teaches that we should “judge righteously” and then “ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again” (Alma 41:14).

This is because some judgement is inevitable in this life. Yes, we must be careful and cautious (for, as I heard a wise Elders Quorum President teach once, we often have the tendency to judge others by their actions but ourselves by our intentions). We must “judge righteously”. But even as individuals it is often necessary for us to judge who we associate with, who we marry and who we trust. We have to judge who we listen to, who we take counsel from, and who we ultimately follow. And many people have responsibilities that go beyond the individual that demand they judge. Parents need to judge in order to look after and protect their children. And Church leaders have a responsibility to judge to protect the flock; indeed Christ teaches above that if one does not, such a shepherd is a mere hireling.

Now there is obviously a need for discernment, wisdom and divine aid in this judgement. Overzealousness can be damaging. It is a terrible mistake if some wandering sheep, or a prodigal son, or even just some poor sheep that’s with the ninety and nine but is confused about a few things is treated as a wolf. It’s also wrong if we as individuals infringe upon the duties and responsibilities of those who have this task. But those in a position of a responsibility have the duty to judge: to both judge who needs especially help (indeed it’s a tragedy if a wandering sheep is judged not to need any help) and to protect the other members of the flock from those who’d prey upon them (in whatever way that might be). This is especially true for those whose calling specifically labels them as a “judge” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:17-18, 64:40, 107:72-74).

The fourth misconception is that such judgements are inherently unloving, and fail to display Christlike love. It is important for us to remember that every human being born on this earth is a child of our Father in Heaven, and he loves them. We are likewise commanded to love all his children (2 Nephi 31:20). Wolves are not born wolves, and it is possible for former wolves to become part of the flock, like Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah. Furthermore Christ commands us to love even our “enemies”, and pray for those who mistreat us (Matthew 5:44). If someone is acting the part of a wolf – in any of the variety of ways I mention above – that is something to be mourned.

But I believe there is often here a significant misunderstanding of justice and mercy (something I hope to return to in the future) and the role of divine love in each. We sometimes seem to treat justice as something bad and mercy as something good, but this is not the case. Both are divine attributes (Alma 42:15). An unjust God would be a more terrible thing than it seems many can even imagine, punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. Justice isn’t just about punishing the transgressor, it is also about protecting those transgressed against, and restoring their hurts. Mercy extended to predators without condition is showing merciless cruelty to their prey.

If those who have a duty to care for a flock (a family, a congregation, or whatever), out of a misguided sense of love and compassion, give a wolf the opportunity and license to savage the flock, they are being unloving to the sheep. It’s not even good for the wolf eternally: to take the example of Church discipline, that can prompt repentance and a goal is to save the soul of the transgressor as well as protect the innocent. But it is especially uncharitable to any sheep who have been sacrificed to the idea that mercy can rob justice. If charity and compassion cause the sheep to be left to the mercy of the wolves, then the shepherds have blood on their hands.

That is not the example of the good shepherd. The good shepherd drives out the wolves, and even if necessary destroys them (Alma 5:59) not because he hates wolves, but because he loves his sheep. He “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The good shepherd cares for and is vigilant in protecting his sheep, and those who have some responsibility for his flock likewise have the responsibility to feed, care, heal and protect his sheep.

Reasons to read the Old Testament #3

I’ve mentioned that I’ve always loved the stories of the Bible. What I should probably confess is that I’ve had a long love of the particularly gory ones. Ehud killing the fat king of Moab (Judges 3), Jael putting a tent peg through Sisera’s temples (meaning his head, not a place of worship, Judges 4), Elijah’s epic confrontation with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18), I loved and love them all. And I know I’m not the only one, for I distinctly remember Blood and Honey, a children’s television programme that involved Tony Robinson giving particularly vivid retellings of the Old Testament stories on location. I loved that too (sadly it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD).

But I know some people don’t quite have the same appreciation for these stories that I do, which I think is sometimes a shame (particularly when that aversion leads them to sanitize such things for youth who might actually find, as I did, such stories appealing). Yet I believe these stories and others that may jar with people’s sensibilities have value beyond that of my own entertainment. I believe, in fact, that what they offer is so valuable that they are a strong reason to read the Old Testament. While each story carries its own lessons, I believe there are three broad points that should lead even those who are averse to such tales to take them seriously:

1) Such stories have a lot to teach about right and wrong. This might seem particularly jarring considering what I’ve just mentioned, and the rather long list of unpleasant acts that can and do occur in such stories. But just because something is described in the Old Testament doesn’t mean that it is being approved by the Old Testament. And Old Testament narrative in particular can often use quite subtle techniques, such as allusion and narrative repetition, to convey its moral viewpoint. Thus Jacob’s trickery of Isaac, where he disguises himself as his brother to gain his father’s blessing (Genesis 27), appears in rather a different light when Jacob just a few chapters later is similarly fooled by Laban into marrying the wrong sister (Genesis 29). Judah’s inappropriate relations with Tamar (Genesis 38) are condemned by their juxtaposition with the account of Joseph resisting temptation (Genesis 39). These stories provide paradigms of both right and wrong doing, and have much to teach anyone paying attention.

2) Such stories can teach us about the difference between our ways and the Lord’s ways. While the above point applies to many such stories in the Old Testament, it doesn’t apply to every story that may offend modern sensibilities. In some cases acts that we may consider wrong under normal circumstances are commanded by the Lord directly, or practices may be apparently endorsed that we are uneasy with. Such stories, however, may well teach us something similar to the account of Nephi killing Laban in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4). The Lord’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and he may on occasion command us to do things that go against our preconceived political, social and religious opinions. Indeed in many respects He seems to make a habit of it. The stories of the Old Testament can also offer a particular challenge to our social mores, those things we might consider the obviously natural and right way of doing things simply because they’re what we know and have grown up with. They may help us resist the myth of progress, and resist the temptation to consider our modern social arrangements part of the eternal Gospel – even such things, to take an aforementioned trivial example, as modern courtship rituals once we consider the stories of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24) or Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 3-4).

3) Such stories are honest. This honesty can be seen in two ways. The first is to compare it with what else was being written from that time period. The records of the Egyptian Pharaohs, for example, glorify their victories, selectively remove any mention of their defeats and even remove mention of particular rulers who their successors preferred to forget (such as Hatshepsut). In contrast consider the Old Testament’s treatment of Moses and David: the great lawgiver who spoke with the Lord face to face, and Israel’s greatest king and founder of a dynasty. While Moses is undoubtedly depicted as a figure to be emulated, we are not spared his mistakes and are informed that the Lord prevented him from entering into the promised land because of just such a mistake (Numbers 27:12-14). Meanwhile David’s adultery with Bath-Sheba and his murder of Uriah is not only depicted, but fiercely condemned by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:1-12).

But there is another aspect to the honesty of these stories too, and one which bears on their sometimes unsavoury nature. The “horrible” things described in these stories happen. They’re not just stories, and they’re not even just a reflection of conditions in the ancient world. They happen today. We are accustomed to being comfortable in the modern West, but when one looks around the world today there are places where these things happen. Nor is the West immune to such things: some horrific things happen in dark corners out of sight, while just seven decades ago Europe was wracked with war and atrocities that make a mockery of any claims to modern moral progress. They are part of our recent past, they are (across the world, and even hidden amongst us) parts of our present, and we cannot assume they will not form part of our future. Scripture, if it is to be a saving influence on human beings, must deal honestly with the human condition. It must be able to acknowledge the horrible things they do, the horrible things they can experience and the extreme responses such circumstances might call for, in order to provide divine guidance for such times. It is this understanding, I feel, that helps us understand why certain things happen (or are even commanded) in the Old Testament, and why the Old Testament talks about them. We may feel uneasy with them in our present ease, but the time may come – and undoubtedly the time will come for some – when the Old Testament’s account of extreme times is more relevant than ever.

Forced speech is not free specch

The ruling in Northern Ireland yesterday – where the judge ruled that it was illegal for Presbyterian bakers to refuse to make a cake that said “support gay marriage” on it – has generated a lot of reactions. This article, however, gets to why this ruling in particular is so objectionable. Many of these types of cases represent infringements on freedom of conscience and association, and this case is particularly bizarre since same sex marriage isn’t even legal in Northern Ireland, but this case seems to establish that it is illegal to refuse to produce a message you oppose. The idea that people can be forced by law to promulgate views they disagree with strikes at the heart of freedom. Forced speech is not free speech.

The ‘Crisis in Masculinity’, Addiction and ‘Dating’ (Hey, I didn’t make this connection!)

Daniel Peterson (the former editor of the FARMS review) has posted a link on his blog and some comments of his own on a newspaper piece talking of a ‘crisis of masculinity’,and its connection to excessive gaming and pornography use. I think both (the blog and the newspaper article) are worth reading and thinking about, though there were a few points that I ended up responding to in the comments, both about said crisis and about the association made in the blog with lack of dating in a singles ward. Since it ended up being a lengthy comment, I thought I might as well put it here too (with a couple of clarifications):

Firstly, I think there’s undoubtedly a crisis in masculinity: look at male suicide rates. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Men under 50 in the UK, and this appears to reflect a common trend across the West. Unfortunately that also indicates the issues involved are more deep-seated than the two suggested addictions. Addictions are very often as much a symptom of intense personal difficulties as they are the cause of them (though they undoubtedly exacerbate them), flawed attempts at escaping a situation. And thinking upon it, the suicide rates suggest the ‘crisis’ is also affecting men who are far too old to have grown up under the influence of computer gaming, which the article itself appears to suggest is a causal factor – undoubtedly other can addictions take their place, but any pervasive crisis also has deeper issues.

Unfortunately it really feels that a lot of the time men are simply berated for this, rather than actually encouraged in a meaningful way to be able to do better. There needs to be a better response (and I believe the Gospel can offer a better response).

Specifically on the dating thing though, a few observations from my perspective:

1) I was in a singles ward for three years, and know full well that the Bishopric were less than happy at the level of dating going on. But there were a range of things going on that simply telling off the males wouldn’t have fixed. The 3-1 (sometimes 4-1) ratio probably didn’t help (and unfortunately at least some of the female members of the ward I spoke to simply didn’t realise how easy it is not to be noticed amongst 120 other people, particularly if they felt they shouldn’t even go to the effort of introducing themselves to people).

2) I undoubtedly didn’t help the statistics. Truthfully I’ve only been on a handful of dates in my life. But this wasn’t from lack of desire, but the fact that I didn’t (and still don’t) have a clue. I’d been very lucky in that ward to fall in with the right group of people and had some good friends (of both genders), in a way I hadn’t really had before in my life; but that area continued to confuse me, and the few experiences I had were not positive. I always felt intensely bad after each attempt at dating and found the whole thing intensely difficult and didn’t know why. Undoubtedly part of my difficulties was a then undiagnosed case of high functioning autistic spectrum disorder, along with what might be conservatively termed a somewhat negative self-image. Under those circumstances, more suggestions that I was somehow offending people even without doing anything because of my failures in this area would not have (and still don’t) help. The idea in some quarters that this is somehow a sin is even more stressful: I have enough sins to worry about!

3) Based on observation though, everyone seems a bit confused, and not just those of us who’d find *any* social rules confusing. And I think one problem at present may be dating itself: Dating is not an eternal principle.

Dating is a particular courtship pattern from a relatively brief period of Western history, that worked because it was generally easy to harmonise with eternal principles. But the Church didn’t choose to practice it out of some sort of conscious choice – it practised it because the surrounding Western culture did too. Things went differently, not only in other dispensations (I admit I find it funny when those who assume dating is an eternal principle are shocked at arranged marriages in the Old Testament), but even simply earlier in this dispensation.

Of course, now Western civilisation is adopting patterns that are less easy to harmonise with eternal principles. And I think under those circumstances it’s difficult for Church members to consciously hold onto this earlier system of courtship patterns in the face of what Western society is doing, when really the only reason they followed them in the first place is because we’re used to following what surrounding western society was doing. Over time I think something else is going to have to develop to fill the new gap, I guess particularly as Church culture divorces from where the West is headed and move towards building the culture of Zion.

In the meantime though (as I guess that may take a while to sort out), a lot of people are going to be confused and disappointed, and I think what’s at play with ‘dating’ goes beyond a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Social changes aren’t just the result of men (and only men) failing to measure up; everyone after all, male and female, is fallen. Just holding men responsible is unlikely to fix the situation. To take the case mentioned in the blog, where apparently one YSA sister and a number of her compatriots were upset with the Elders Quorum as they regular scheduled weekend computer game nights and weren’t dating, I doubt just not permitting the EQ activities as suggested would have appreciably affected the level of dating. I can appreciate the point made in the comments about Leadership’s role in such wards in encouraging appropriate interactions between the sexes, but I suspect merely removing the EQ activities from the schedule wouldn’t be enough (I assume the issue with the EQ activities was one frequency and timing – an Elders Quorum with no activities would in my mind also be inappropriate, as it’d fail to fulfil the Quorum function of brotherhood). I’m also not sure it’s too helpful to have some people feeling they can be justifiably angry at others for not taking them on dates: it’s not a particularly encouraging view to see dates as some sort of obligated tribute, and I’m not sure people are particularly inclined to date others they’re angry at or know are angry at them.

But I could be completely wrong. This is, as mentioned above, an Achilles heel.

“All is not lost”

MY son, patience and humility in adversities are more pleasing to Me, than much comfort and devotion when things go well.
Why are thou so grieved for every little matter spoken against thee?
Although it had been much more, thou oughtest not to have been moved.
But now let it pass; it is not the first that hath nor is it any thing new; neither shall it be the last, if thou live long.
Thou art courageous enough, so long as nothing adverse befalleth thee.
Thou canst give good counsel also, and canst strengthen others with thy words; but when any tribulation suddenly comes to thy door, thou failest in counsel and in strength.
Observe then thy great frailty, of which thou too often hast experience in small occurrences.
It is nothwithstanding intended for thy good, when these and such like trials happen to thee.

2. Put it out of thy heart the best thou canst, and if tribulation have touched thee, yet let it not cast thee down, nor long perplex thee.
Bear it at least patiently, if thou canst not joyfully. Although thou be unwilling to hear it, and conceivest indignation thereat, yet restrain thyself, and suffer no inordinate word to pass out of thy mouth, whereby Christ’s little ones may be offended.
The storm which is now raised shall quickly be appeased, and inward grief shall be sweetened by the return of Grace.
I yet live, saith the Lord, and am ready to help thee, and to give thee more than ordinary consolation, if thou put thy trust in Me, and call devoutly upon Me.

3. Be more patient of soul, and gird thyself to greater endurance.
All is not lost, although thou do feel thyself very often afflicted or grievously tempted.
Thou art a man, and not God; thou art flesh, not an Angel.
How canst thou look to continue alway in the same state of virtue, when an Angel in Heaven hath fallen, as also the first man in Paradise?
I am He who lift up the mourners to safety and soundness, and those that know their own weakness I advance to My own Divine [Nature].

4. O LORD, blessed be Thy Word, more sweet unto my mouth than honey and the honeycomb.
What should I do in these so great tribulations and straits, unless Thou didst comfort me with Thy holy discourses?
What matter is it, how much or what I suffer, so as I may at length attain to the port of salvation?
Grant me a good end, grant me a happy passage out of this world.
Be mindful of me, O my God, and direct me in the right way of Thy kingdom. Amen.

– Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter LVII: “That a Man should not be too much Dejected, even when he falleth into some Defects”

On the ‘spiritual’

Today I ran across an assertion I’ve seen numerous times: the claim that adopting so-called critical approaches to scripture (approaches that – for the purpose of using the scriptures religiously – require the devotee to read the scriptures in a metaphorical or allegorical fashion) leads to “greater heights of spiritual growth”. I’ve come across this assertion on a number of occasions, all expressing the idea that if we take the scriptures in a more symbolic fashion, usually in connection with the idea that we should not believe events in the Book of Mormon or Bible actually happened, then one does not lose out ‘spiritually’ but instead apparent expands in spirituality.

Yet in all this, no one stops to explain what they mean by ‘spiritual’. It’s left as a rather woolly term. And in all fairness, it tends to be used in a fairly woolly way on lots of other occasions. What do we mean when we talk about wanting to be ‘fed spiritually’ at some meeting? What are we referring to when we talk about having some ‘spiritual’ experience or impression? When we talk of our ‘spiritual’ needs, or wanting to become strong ‘spiritually’, what on earth are we talking about? When we talk of our reading of the scriptures building our personal ‘spirituality’, what exactly are we trying to accomplish?

 

First things first: Spiritual does not mean allegorical

Perhaps the first place to begin is with what it is not, but where there seems to be at least some confusion. Some of this confusion can be seen in treatments of 1 Nephi 22, where Nephi (having quoted Isaiah 48-49), proceeds to answer some of his brothers’ question and provide an interpretation. Nephi’s brothers begin by asking:

What meaneth these things which ye have read? Behold, are they to be understood according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh?
(1 Nephi 22:1)

Now a number of commentators – critics and LDS scholars alike – have seen this as addressing the age-old debate between literal and allegorical meanings in scripture. However, while these can overlap, reading Nephi’s response reveals that the distinction here is not the same. Nephi begins by saying:

Behold they were manifest unto the prophet by the voice of the Spirit; for by the Spirit are all things made known unto the prophets, which shall come upon the children of men according to the flesh.
(1 Nephi 22:2)

Thus Nephi begins by first asserting that the contents of such prophecies – whatever their application, spiritually or temporally – was made known “by the spirit”, meaning here supernatural communication by means of the Holy Ghost. Thus Nephi’s response is to first undermine the distinction his brothers’ have set up by, by linking spiritual to the means by which scripture was given, even when its contents concern ‘the flesh’.

Nephi then states “the things which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual”. Nephi thus embraces both sides of this apparent divide, as he had done earlier (in 1 Nephi 15:31–32) when discussing the interpretation of his father’s revelations. But again, this is not the literal versus the allegorical, as further reading makes clear. Nephi goes on to cite the words of Isaiah 49:22, that Israel’s “children have been carried in their arms, and their daughters have been carried upon their shoulders” as something “temporal” (1 Nephi 22:6), but the interpretation offered in verse 8 is not literal: the shoulders are metaphorical for the ‘marvelous work’ the Lord is to perform amongst the Gentiles which will bless the house of Israel. Temporal does not mean literal, and spiritual does not mean allegorical.

 

‘Spirit’

If spiritual then only has an occasional overlap with the allegorical, what are we really referring to. This is really a question of what we mean by ‘spirit’. We may not have a full understanding of what that is, but one thing we learn from modern revelation is that man is spirit:

For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;
(Doctrine and Covenants 93:33)

We are thus composed, at the present time, of both spirit and element. Spirit is distinct from element, so that while it is not immaterial it is more “fine or pure” (D&C 131:7-8). The bit of us composed of spirit is the bit of us that preceded our mortal incarnation (Abraham 3:23), and it is the placing of this in our mortal bodies that makes us, spirit and body, “a living soul” (Abraham 5:7). These two will be separated at death, and our spirits will continue to exist after death, and then at the resurrection our spirit and element will be reunited in an immortal, incorruptible state (2 Nephi 9:13), to be judged. Thus ‘spiritual’ can often bear the meaning of eternal, compared to that which is merely mortal and temporary, as in 1 Nephi 15:31-32 and Alma 11:45. Those who are resurrected in glory are likewise referred to as having a “spiritual body”, even though it will be eternally united with element (1 Corinthians 15:44, D&C 88:27).

But we are also not the only things that are spirit. Other living things were likewise created spiritually before they were created physically (Moses 3:4-7). And there are other things which, like us in our premortal state, are spirit but do not have a body of element: those not yet resurrected are spirit (D&C 129:3); as are those who rebelled, the devil and his angels who have lost the opportunity for bodies (D&C 50:1-3). Then there is the Holy Ghost, who is a “personage of spirit” so he might “dwell in us” (D&C 130:22).

Thus there are many things which are spirit, which are very real but which we generally cannot perceive – indeed, even though the Father and the Son have glorified bodies they too can only be perceived by “spiritual eyes”, it being necessary that we and our “natural eyes” be “transfigured” (Moses 1:11). ‘Spiritual’ can refer to matters that concern our eternal fate (as we are spirit), but can also refer to our interactions with these unseen realities. And these unseen realities affect us to a greater degree than we in the modern age are likely to think. ‘Spiritually’, there is not just us, acting in complete and self-assured autonomy. Rather our ability to choose is partly dependent upon the fact that we are being “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16); not just by our own internal tendencies, but by God through the Holy Spirit on one hand, and the devil and his angels on the other.

Thus ‘spiritual’ phenomena is often referring not to something going on in our own heads, but actual contact with an unseen but very real world. It’s perhaps important to know that other spiritual phenomena exist (in the same way that the first principle of the Gospel is not faith, but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ), but the ‘spiritual’ interaction that the scriptures (and presumably us) refer to most and which is certainly the most desirable is interaction with Divine power and knowledge, principally by the means of the Holy Spirit. When Moroni gives his promise as to how we can know the truth of the Book of Mormon and all things, it is because he is promising that God will reveal it to us by means of an actual entity, the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:4-5). This is what Alma is referring to when he states that he knows not of himself, “not of the temporal, but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind, but of God” (Alma 36:4), for he had contact with Angels and had eternal truths “made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God” (Alma 5:46). Being strong in the spirit refers not to any innate state, but rather the communication of real power and knowledge from a Divine being:

And the priests were not to depend upon the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God.
(Mosiah 18:26)

Ammon said unto him: I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God, and I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true;
And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.
(Alma 18:34–35)

 

The Real

Thus when we talk of having ‘spiritual experiences’ or being ‘fed spiritually’, we are not talking about something that is solely an internal process. Rather what we are seeking is actual communication and contact with an external source: God through the Holy Ghost. When we talk of being “spiritually begotten”, we’re not talking about some change or resolve we’ve managed to do all by ourselves, but that “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent” has intervened and “wrought a might change in us” (Mosiah 5:2,7). When we speak of being ‘strong spiritually’, or building our own personal ‘spirituality’, we are not talking of just some innate characteristics, but being in close communion with an external source of power and righteousness, even the omnipotent and omniscient creator of Heaven and Earth.

‘Spiritual’ is not an euphemism. We are not more ‘spiritual’ because we feel our feelings are more elevated, or because we feel more ethical, or our emotions feel calm. It is not something we can produce from within the confines of our own psyche. It is not something we can generate with our intellect or with a particular mental paradigm, but only as we are brought into contact with a real and external spiritual force. If we speak of being able to ‘grow spiritually’ but do not mean real spiritual matters, we are talking of something of our own imagination. If we read the scriptural accounts of revelation and miracles metaphorically, we have robbed them of their paradigmatic power that we too can experience the same revelations and miracles. If we talk of ‘growing spiritually’ but deny the existence of actual supernatural miracles (and I have yet to come across any who insist on reading the scriptures metaphorically and symbolically who hold onto the reality of miracles), then our ‘spirituality’ “is vain” (Moroni 7:37), and we are in danger of having “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5, Joseph Smith-History 1:19, compare 2 Nephi 28:5,26, Jacob 6:8, 3 Nephi 19:6, Mormon 8:28, Moroni 10:7,33), one of the major warnings aimed at our times. This is a loss: what is an imaginary meal compared to a real steak?

I have had the real steak. I’ve been privileged to experience and witness many miraculous and wonderful things, far more than I possibly deserve (and I don’t deserve a lot). And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Spiritual things are objectively real, these unseen realities are real, and this detached and imaginary ‘spirituality’ cannot compare to the actual revelations and miracles of a very real God. And we can’t fabricate spiritual growth in our own minds; rather we are ‘spiritual’ inasmuch as we have faith, humble ourselves and repent, and so open ourselves to the spirit of the Lord. We are ‘fed spiritually’ insofar as we really see real spiritual things, as we experience real miracles, as we hear the Holy Spirit and as we experience actual power from the spirit to do things we could not do by ourselves. And we are spiritually blessed as we receive actual revelations not from our psyche, but from our actual Father in Heaven and God through the means of his Holy Spirit, even about things no man knows.