Perhaps you, like me, are perplexed when contemplating questions pertaining to what a spiritual experience feels like, how to recognize a spiritual experience, and what constitutes a spiritual experience. The former two are, indeed, much more difficult to answer and beyond the scope of this little blog post. However, I believe the latter question is one that I feel I can, at least in some respects, address.
What constitutes a spiritual experience?
I’d wager that you might answer the same way as most people do, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith. Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). These are perhaps, from my experience, some of the most frequently cited scriptures to answer this question. And rightly so! The Spirit and voice of God uplifts, inspires, and fills us with peace of my mind, conviction, and love. However, true as these verses may be, they do not capture the essence of a spiritual experience in its entirety. To say spiritual experiences are only manifested or recognized as described in Galatians 5:22-23 is far too narrow. I will provide some scriptural accounts that will demonstrate what I mean.
The first individual that always comes to my mind is Nephi. While walking through the streets of Jerusalem seeking to locate the golden plates, Nephi stumbled across the one individual who was preventing him from retrieving those plates that God commanded him to. Drunken with wine, passed out, and completely vulnerable, Laban would never live to see the light of day. The Spirit’s voice was clear: “Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thine hands” (1 Nephi 4:12). Following this account, we are not told that Nephi rejoiced, for he was overwhelmed by feelings of goodness, peace, longsuffering, goodness, gentleness, and kindness. Quite the contrary.
We read in 1 Nephi 4:10 that Nephi “shrunk” and was extremely reluctant to do what he was told. I can imagine that Nephi was overcome with anxiety, discomfort, and, dare I say, cognitive dissonance. When he still would not do what he was commanded, the Spirit pressed upon his mind the reasons why he was brought to this point. Finally, after several considerations, Nephi obeyed.
Galatians 5 experience? Not really. Would one conclude then that this event was not a spiritual experience? Of course not. The voice of the Spirit whispering, prompting, and constraining one to act is the essence of a spiritual experience.
Laman and Lemuel
In addition to Nephi’s encounter with Laban, what about the experiences of his brothers, Laman and Lemuel? Upon hearing the word of God, by one with authority bearing pure testimony, did Laman and Lemuel feel Galatians 5:22-23? Hardly. In fact, they felt that had been spoken to “harshly” and that the feelings they experienced were more than they could bare (1 Nephi 16:1). Was this not a spiritual – albeit painful and discomforting – experience? The Spirit testifies of truth and those encounters and experiences are spiritual, whether we like them or not. Even if they seem painful.
Alma the Younger
Consider Alma the Younger, a rebellious and cunning individual who sought to destroy the faith of those around him. When the angel called him to repentance and he was struck dumb, was he a recipient of the feelings described in Galatians 5? Eventually he was, but he first experienced some horrendous realizations before that. He describes his experience as having great fear, being racked with eternal torment, and feeling harrowed up by the very memory of his sins (Alma 36:11-14). He was tormented by the pains of hell. However, this was still a spiritual experience.
The Apostle Paul
Finally, consider the transformation of Saul into the apostle Paul. As he journeyed on the road towards Damascus, he was confronted with a vision and his own spiritual experience: he was trembling and astonished (Acts 9:1-9). Initially, he was not filled with peace and love, but he was uneasy and left without sight for three days. I do not understand how this would be a peaceful and emotionally uplifting process in the moment.
What is a Spiritual Experience?
If I have not made my point clear, I will say it more bluntly. It is not a spiritual experience merely because you feel positive emotions in the moment. Sometimes, spiritual experiences are quite painful. They are harsh and can “[cut us] to the very center” (1 Nephi 16:2). What is described in Galatians 5:22-23 is true. However, this understanding of spiritual experiences is too narrow if we do not consider other roles they can have in our lives.
If the individuals in the above examples gave heed only to the descriptions in Galatians 5, they would not have acted, changed, or been prepared to enter the kingdom of our Father. The Lord has declared that he chastises those that he loves (Helaman 15). Being chastised doesn’t always feel so great.
So, all things considered, perhaps we can return to the initial question: what constitutes a spiritual experience? We know it can be both pleasant and painful emotions, but are emotions at the heart of it? Not necessarily. The one thing that makes a spiritual experience a spiritual experience is if the Spirit is actually there. That it is present in the moment, whispering promptings to our ear or, metaphorically speaking, kicking down our front door and calling us to repentance. No matter how comforting or painful a revelation may be, you receive a spiritual experience if the Holy Ghost is the one speaking to you…even when the message is as unpleasant as cutting off someone’s head off.
If you feel pained, tormented, or agonized by a message that cuts you to the center, do not dismiss it. Discover what you are to learn from this chastisement. Cast your heart and mind to the Savior so that, like Alma, we can, despite our anguish, feel that inexplicable joy and comfort that he spoke of (see Alma 36:19-21) and, consequently, the very same witnesses as described in Galatians 5:22-23, “For after much tribulation come the blessings” (D&C 58:2-4).