What brings Miracles

As one does, I happened to come across some meme that was being shared on facebook, one clearly aimed at an LDS audience. There’s lots of them floating out there, usually with some snippet of a talk or some well-meaning sentiment. The ones I tend to notice however are the ones that, while well-meaning, fall short on the “actually right” scale. Those who know me will know my annoyance at things like the “I never said it’d be easy, I only said it’d be worth it” when Christ didn’t actually say that. However, the one I noticed today was, I believe, sufficiently wrong that it is not just a matter of me being crotchety, and worth bringing up here.

I’m not going to reproduce the image, since it’d end up being shared with this blogpost and people would get the wrong idea. However, the text stated: “Obedience brings blessings, but obedience with exactness brings miracles.”

I’m really not sure this is true.

And I think this is important because a lot of people can come to believe this: that they must be absolutely, 100% obedient, before God will intervene. “Obedience with exactness” can become a never-ending standard that only one person ever born on this earth ever met. But it isn’t true. I’ve been blessed to be a witness and a recipient of miracles on a number of occasions – and I’m not simply talking “happy coincidence” level of miracles (sometimes I think we sell such things short with low expectations, but that’s another matter) either – but I certainly haven’t been perfectly obedient. Yet I think this sort of belief can hold people, who are many times more obedient or charitable than I am, from receiving miracles that are otherwise on offer.

There are several scriptures I believe are pertinent when faced with this statement.

Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given;

For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts.

(D&C 46:8-9)

Spiritual gifts seem very much a sort of miracle, especially when we consider one gift is the “working of miracles” (D&C 49:21). Here in the verse above we learn that such gifts are for those who love God and keep all his commandments… “and him that seeketh so to do”, a merciful caveat. An important one too. I was fortunate while serving my mission, for example, to be blessed with many miracles. Yet I certainly cannot claim to have been 100% perfectly obedient at all times. I made mistakes, and so does anyone else. But did I want to be obedient? Yes, I certainly did, and I think that made a big difference. God takes our desires into account, not just our “results”.

However, there is one factor in the scriptures, more than any other, that is associated with the occurrence and the working of miracles. And it is not exact obedience:

For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself until after their faith.

Yea, and even all they who wrought miracles wrought them by faith, even those who were before Christ and also those who were after.

(Ether 12:12, 16)

Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.

(Mosiah 8:18)

Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men…

(Moroni 7:37)

He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

(Galatians 3:5)

And that he manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders, among the children of men according to their faith.

(2 Nephi 26:13)

For I am God, and mine arm is not shortened; and I will show miracles, signs, and wonders, unto all those who believe on my name.

(D&C 35:8)

The fundamental precondition, aside from the will of God, for miracles is faith. Sometimes, it is true, that faith must be trust that even if God chooses not to act, that he knows best anyway. But it must also include a trust that he can and is willing to help and work miracles in the lives of his children, and that he is capable and willing to do so despite our imperfections .The Gospels contain a litany of accounts of the Saviour healing the sick and working mighty miracles, and then calling the recipients to a life of obedience. The entire premise of the Atonement is that God acted without waiting for us to reach some level of perfection: that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And so it is with his miracles. The Lord is not waiting for our perfect obedience to help us, but rather works with us according to our faith and His will, and it is through his help and miracles that we become perfect.

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Fear

Within the last two years I’ve had the occasion to really examine the role of emotion in my life. I don’t like to talk of “journeys” because that tends to sound like hippyish nonsense, but events and certain long-held beliefs in my life have forced me to confront either long-buried emotions or feel whole new ones.

At the same time, right at the beginning of this process, a friend pointed out to me that the scriptural instruction is to “bridle all your passions” (Alma 38:12). While my practice for most of my life has been to attempt to suppress my emotions, to lock them up in some mental concentration camp, a bridle does not kill the horse, or even stop it most of the time: the bridle allows one to steer the horse. So too with our emotions: Christ felt every emotion we do, the difference is that he controlled them rather than being controlled by them. Emotions are part of our immortal existence (both God and pre-mortal spirits feel emotion, e.g. Moses 7:29,34; Job 38:7; Abraham 3:28), and we cannot end them. Rather we must learn to steer them, so that instead of being a weakness our feelings may become a strength.

I’ve touched on this topic before, as well as the example of the Saviour, in considering happiness and unhappiness. But I’ve been giving thought to the role of other emotions too, particularly those we regards as negative, or as having no proper place. And the one that has particularly come to mind is fear.

I doubt that few other emotions have such a bad reputation – perhaps only hate is seen as a more negative emotion. I’ve heard repeatedly the claim that we should never fear, or that faith cannot coexist with fear, or that it casts out fear. There is some scriptural support for some of this: we are taught that we should “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36) and that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18) though notice the latter passage doesn’t say faith. Yet the scriptures also teach repeatedly that we should “fear God” (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:13, 1 Peter 2:17 and many others). While I agree that this fear has more the air of reverence and awe than abject terror, we find that the scriptures use the same words for the “negative” and “positive” uses of the term (and this is true in Hebrew, Greek and English). Thus Joseph Smith is told “you should not have feared man more than God” (D&C 3:7); the (undesirable) fear of man cannot therefore have an entirely different semantic meaning than the (desirable) fear of God. We are also instructed to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, cf. Mormon 9:27), and told that at the very moment that the Brother of Jared was so full of faith that he pierced the veil and saw the finger of the Lord that “he fell with fear” (Ether 3:19).

What can explain this apparent dichotomy? I think we should realise first that just because some, even most, fear is wrong doesn’t mean all fear must be wrong; love, after all, while seen as more positive can also mislead, be distorted or be a snare for sin.

Yet I also think there is also something more powerful at play, something that I think I caught of glimmer of in the following clip from “The Dark Knight Rises”. Bruce Wayne/Batman has been imprisoned in a pit, one that no one has climbed out of except for a child. While he recovers his health, his attempts to climb out continue to fail, until the following:

It is the dialogue at 1:04 onwards that gets my attention:

Doctor: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce Wayne: Why?
Doctor: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.
Doctor: Then make the climb.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Doctor: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.

How often do we simply try to deny fear, or seek some sort of world security – “a rope”? Are the scriptural injunctions against fear directing us simply not to feel it? As I have discovered with a range of emotions, trying to deny or suppress our emotions is unlikely to work. Surely such instructions are about not letting our fears (other than our fear of God) control us, not allowing such fears to prevent us acting in faith. For what is the truly faithful position, the real exercise of faith? Is it to act in complete ignorance of the risks we run and the dangers we face? Is it to only act when we have put our own safety net into place? Or is it to depend upon God in the full face of fear, to act in spite of our very real and grounded fears? To know that without Him we face a certain doom, and yet place ourselves in danger because of our trust in Him?

God would have us climb all manner of pits, but it strikes me that in order for us to learn to depend upon him, he would have us climb “without the rope”. I am reminded of the frequent instruction in scripture that when proclaiming the gospel that we should “neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85). I’ve repeated that verse to many people, and many of them have something to me along the lines of “well it’s easy for you, but I don’t have your talents, so I have my talk/notes written out so I have something to rely on”. They do not know that I used to be utterly incapable of any kind of public speaking, that I even froze when trying to speak in sacrament and had to be escorted down from the stand. In order to speak, I had to let go of any rope and rely solely on God’s promise and not any notes. And I am still terrified. But God would have us rely on him and not our own papers.

How often does God have us climb without any rope? Why were the Children of Israel led into a dead end, with no escape from Pharaoh except across the Red Sea? Or Elijah directed to challenge the 400 Priests of Baal alone in full view of the people? David not only faced Goliath, but he chose do so without Saul’s armour. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego knew God could save them from the fiery furnace, but they didn’t know that he would until they were thrown in. In each case, these ancient saints faced very real, and in some cases very avoidable, terrors. They were directed so that they all faced the climb, but were left without rope. They all had to face situations where they could feel fear and know that their only hope was the power of God.

I believe that sometimes it is only in such circumstances that God’s power is manifest, even to us. It is only in such circumstances, when we feel our own fears (whether that be to our life, or our livelihood, or some more minor but very real feeling matter) but choose to act regardless, that we can truly recognise our need for God’s power. Faith, I believe, is found not in denying fear, but in feeling it – even when directed placing ourselves in its path – but choosing instead in that moment to willingly risk our fears and depend upon God. It is only when we actually fear that our faith becomes a choice, and having made that choice – even having had faith longer than is possible – we can then see impossible miracles.

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.

He hath given a law to all things

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. (Doctrine & Covenants 88:12-13)

He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.

And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets. (v.41-43)

The nature of miracles sometimes gets some discussion in LDS circles. Of course, most of the modern world has dismissed the possibility of such things, but the Book of Mormon strongly emphasises not just the existence of past miracles, but the reality and indeed the necessity of present day miracles (Moroni 7:37-38, compare Mormon 9:20), for faith works miracles, and an absence of miracles is due to unbelief.

The question is often raised as to how such miracles relate to physical ‘laws’ – after all, such miracles as raising the dead, transmuting water into wine or walking on water violate physical laws as we understand them. And some LDS folk have suggested that there is no such violation here – all that is happening is that God understands some ‘higher law’, and works within that.

I’ve never been entirely happy with this approach, which seems to subordinate God to physical laws, and reduce the supernatural to the natural (the very tendency the Book of Mormon, with its emphasis on the power of God, appears to argue against!). And, as verse 42 above indicates, it is God who gives law rather than the other way around. But upon rereading the above verses, I am struck that much much more seems to be offered here. Our very model of immutable physical laws, separate from God, is itself an artefact of many centuries of Western culture, as can be seen in notions of God as a ‘watch maker’, who sets up the universe and then lets it run itself, and later concepts that ditched the watch maker.

Yet that is not the perspective of Section 88. Notice here that the light of Christ, which is ‘the law by which all things are governed’ and the ‘power of God’ (v.13), and which amongst other things is the power by which the sun, moon and stars were made (v.7-9) and regulates their motions (v.42-43), is depicted as proceeding ‘forth from the presence of God’. It is not a one time thing, done in the past, but something in the present. The physical laws operate not because they were set down in the past, but because the power of God, which gives life, light and law to all things, acts upon them now. Any such physical laws by which the universe operates do so because of the continuing present will of God. Law is thus not something separate from God, let alone above him – it is the present operation of His will upon the physical universe.

If this is true (and the above verses suggest it is), then there are no such thing as immutable physical laws. Physical laws operate because God presently wills it, and if he ceased to do so they would not. Miracles are where God wills differently, and when he does the physical universe obeys (Helaman 12:7-8). And rather than everything being confined under rigid, naturalistic law, even the operation of supposedly ‘natural’, ‘physical’ laws are actually further examples of the supernatural and the power of God. Perhaps this is why Section 88 goes on to proclaim:

Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. (v.47)