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A Few Ways to Assess Our Spiritual Progress


Years ago I read a talk by Truman Madsen in which he asked 20 questions to help us assess whether we are experiencing the Spirit in our lives. His questions included experiences such as feeling healed by the sacrament to speaking beyond our natural ability. I love the idea that we can gauge our spiritual progress. We can know how we are doing in our relationship with God.

Of course there is a problem in trying to assess our own spiritual development. As Elder Maxwell suggested, the true believer in Christ “is apt to be quite innocent of his growing incandescence” (True Believers in Christ at Brigham Young University on 7 October 1980). The closer we get to God, the more we focus on His glory rather than our own progress. Any radiance from us is truly reflected light.

It is good that we focus on God rather than ourselves. Yet there is probably value in marking our development. It can be fundamentally encouraging to realize that God has made progress in rebuilding our souls.

 

Taking the measure of our progress

 

Most of my life I have felt as if I was a spiritual failure. I had lofty goals for goodness and I knew I wasn’t attaining them. Yet, as I have come to know God better and trust His purposes more, I think I have perceived Him making some small progress in my stubborn soul.

So I share my personal list of markers. I do not have 20 of them as Brother Madsen did; but these are the signs in my soul that have given me hope that God can yet make something of me.

 

1. We love to be with the saints. “He that loveth his brother, abideth in the light” (I John 2:10) We know that our fellow travelers have their quirks. We are dimly mindful of hurts and hard words. But any remembered pains are swamped by the sheer joy of seeing so many good people, who share the common struggle toward Goodness. While we may all love one another, each of us shows our affection in different ways. Nancy and I like to wade into our ward and start hugging. We hug the little ones, the big ones, and the in-between ones—that is, we hug them if they seem to like hugs. Some seem to prefer an earnest handshake. So we offer handshakes. I feel sure that the love we feel for our ward members is a heavenly gift.

 

2. Irritation diminishes. “And now I would that ye should be……full of patience and longsuffering” (Alma 7:23) Anyone who is not irritated with someone at church is either ready to be translated, or isn’t spending enough time at church. We will all be irritated at times. And the irritation seems to bunch up around certain people. Brother So-and-so thinks he knows everything. Sister So-and-so seems cold and distant. It is natural for us to ritualize our reaction so that we bristle at the sight of the person. It is also natural for us to judge the others and justify ourselves. But the natural man is an enemy to God. As God works on us, we feel ourselves less and less inclined to be irritated. We become more interested in the life story that brought them to our lives the way they are. We look for ways to both understand and help them. Irritation is gradually crowded out by compassion.

3. We think less of ourselves. This has a double meaning. We not only think about ourselves less often but we also are less big in our own story. You probably remember Ammon’s answer when Aaron accused him of bragging: “I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; . . . I will rejoice in my God” (Alma 26:11). The spiritually mature think more and more of Jesus. As we mature, we recognize our dependence on Him for all good things. We may become less dismayed by our humanness and more ready to call on His goodness. We speak warmly and lovingly of Him. As we move from center stage of our own dramas, the star of our story is increasingly Jesus.

4. We see His goodness everywhere. “I will praise thee for ever; because thou hast done it: and I will wait on thy name; for it is good before thy saints” (Psalm 52:9). The more we experience God, the more we know that He consecrates even our afflictions for our gain. We are less afraid of trials and more grateful for blessings. We know that our lives are presided over by a perfectly loving and perfectly wise Father. While seeing His goodness in everything may be more difficult for those of us who think we should exercise significant control in our lives, or have trouble trusting, even we can learn to relax in His gracious arms.

 

5. We get revelation. “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart” (D&C 8:2-3). Revelation comes in many ways. Sometimes an understanding of a scripture tiptoes into our minds. Sometimes we find unexpected words flowing from us as we teach or testify. Sometimes we feel the shock of truth when we hear someone else teach. Maybe we even find new desires sneaking into our prayers. It is always cause for celebration when we discover that God is patiently teaching and guiding us.

 

6. We feel heavenly power. While we are not called to control the universe, God often allows His humble followers to join Him in accomplishing holy purposes. He allowed humble, meek Enoch to move mountains and redirect rivers in order to protect His people. Sometimes God allows us to participate with Him in something divine. Perhaps we feel power flow through us as we pronounce a blessing. Maybe we feel redemption flow through us as we perform temple ordinances for long-departed ancestors. Or we may sense Him sending us on His errands as we make ourselves available to help others. As Joseph learned in Liberty Jail (see D&C 121), real power often has nothing to do with earthly power. What a blessing that God shares His power with us!

 

7. We rejoice. Several times every week, God traverses eternity to put His strong arms around me and lift me off the ground. I am dumbfounded when He does it. I join Ammon in words of wonder: “Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state?” (Alma 26:17). Sometimes it is the words of a hymn that jar me with joy. Sometimes it is a harmonious truth that leaps out of scripture. Sometimes it is quite inexplicable; God just gives a random hug. Oh! How grateful I am!

 

I make no claim that this is a comprehensive or definitive list. It’s just my list—my attempt to note and appreciate the ways God continues to bless and refine one imperfect son. There are lots of times when I fall short, and lug myself along the path begrudging mortality its aches and pains. But those are not the measure of our progress. It is the flourishes of the Spirit that testify that we are on the path toward God.

 

Behind each of these markers  is one great change: our motivation—our hearts. As we progress spiritually, we are less likely to do things out of grudging obedience. We don’t do things to check them off the checklist. We don’t do them for recognition or acclaim. We do them because of the relationship we have with God. Because we love Him with all our hearts, we join Him in His work. We assess our progress not to celebrate our accomplishments, but to recognize His graciousness.

 

Celebrating the milestones

 

As I think about our halting progress, I think of our dear little grandson Will. When he took his first faltering steps, we whooped and hollered. We acted as if all creation should celebrate!

 

I wonder if loved ones on the other side of the veil do the same thing every time we pass another spiritual milestone. We finally learn to trust God with some corner of our minds, hearts, and lives and joy busts loose in Eternity! We learn to hear the voice of God and angels sing praises. Truly, those that be with us are more than we can comprehend (See Elisha in 2 Kings 6:16).

 

While our progress may seem sporadic and spotty, God is able to do His redemptive work. He is able to refine and enlarge us if we will cooperative, even reluctantly, with His perfect purposes.

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11 Comments

  • Reply Deanna January 4, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    “While our progress may seem sporadic and spotty, God is able to do His redemptive work.”

    Sometimes I think sporadic and spotty is generous when I evaluate things, but looking at the big picture, I would guess that any of us who are trying have an overall positive trend. It’s just getting that big picture perspective that is difficult.

    Just this morning I was reading out of Abraham, and the thought of one day for Heavenly Father being like a thousand years here on Earth makes me wonder if the fits and spurts of spiritual growth mingled with sluggishness and frustration we experience in this life aren’t all just part of one FANTASTIC afternoon spent at some sort of spiritual amusement park. How will we feel when our journey here is over? Sure, we might have gotten lost trying to find the cotton candy vendor, we really shouldn’t have eaten that hot dog before climbing on the tilt-a-whirl, and that giant panda really wasn’t worth it after all–but it was still an AWESOME day. Maybe that’s oversimplifying it, but sometimes I think I need things oversimplified. 😉

    • Reply admin January 18, 2010 at 6:57 pm

      Wow, Deanna! What a lovely metaphor! I love the way you have expressed
      it. You remind me of the words of Elder Maxwell: “One’s life,
      therefore, is brevity compared to eternity—like being dropped off by a
      parent for a day at school. But what a day!”

      -Wally

  • Reply Peggy January 5, 2010 at 12:51 am

    Thank-you. This article meant a lot to me today.

  • Reply Tom January 5, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Thanks for the thoughts, it made a good starting point for our Family Home Evening.

  • Reply jael January 6, 2010 at 1:05 am

    I have given your book “Drawing Heaven into your Marriage” to several. It is funny, poignant, insightful and tremendously needed by all of us. Thank you for sharing with us, your great gift of words and intellect.

  • Reply Cheri January 6, 2010 at 11:59 am

    I find this article very timely. I was just praying or was it just talking out loud to myself, how I miss the days of being 18 going to the local college, enjoying LDS Institute and all the new friends and director I met there.

    The freedom of having my own car, trust from my parents, and new experiences. Then there is the first time arriving at BYU as a student, meeting new roommates, walking across campus, attending new exciting classes and new adventure.

    Then other experiences, meeting my husband, having my children, watching them grow, etc.

    I guess I could name many new and exciting experiences that brought joy, but as time goes on there is a lot of adversity, trials and sorrows, body aches from aging, lack of the same energy I had when I was 18, 30, 40, and so on.

    So I take an Advil, feed my goldfish, water plants and decide to check my email. What perfect timing for this article, because I can judge due to this posting that I am feeling the Spirit in measurable ways and have focused on more temple attendance, studying the scriptures, praying more, and sacrificing my personal time for my family and others.

    My prayers are being answered, and more quickly than I anticipate. A calming inner voice gives me peace and to not worry anymore about certain matters.

    When I attend the temple, I don’t want to leave as the Spirit is so strong there and I feel such great peace and comraderie. I don’t feel the need to rush off and concern myself with worldly cares.

    I realize I have time available to redeem the dead, that there are activities of my own making that aren’t as important as I thought and this time can be spent elsewhere serving others.

    I do find myself praying more for others and inactive family members that I would never give a thought to pray for, as they are so adamantly opposed to the church and some just not interested in attending any church.

    So this is a perfect article to read today, as I recover from the activities of the Christmas season and move forward in a new year.

  • Reply Nancy Gonzalez January 27, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Hey, Wally. It’s amazing to read that you struggle with questions about your faith, too. You’re so much better than I, as human beings go. One of our shared colleagues told me of the days you spent helping her paint her house. Good grief. You can’t even get a ride to the airport anymore let alone get help painting. You’re old-fashioned good–I know your Nancy must be, too. Keep on keepin’ on. Your witness extends over at least 4 states.
    ~Nancy in Minneapolis

  • Reply Megan Buhler January 30, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Hi, I am searching for a story that I believe I read in an article by you. It was a conference and bishops and relief society presidents were asked to travel separately and one bishop asked why they were trusted in their positions but not to travel together and the visiting authority said they wouldn’t have made the request if they hadn’t lost bishops and relief society presidents. Could you point me toward the article? thanks!

    • Reply admin February 17, 2010 at 11:29 am

      Megan,

      I’m afraid that the story must have come from someone else. I don’t recognize it.

      Blessings,
      wally

  • Reply John February 17, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Thank you for the reflection. I’m Catholic, it’s Ash Wednesday, and I just returned from mass. I needed exactly the words you offered.

  • Reply Rebecca Weisler May 21, 2011 at 11:03 am

    This article was beautifully written. It is noble men like Dr. Wally that helps me have a more clear view and understanding of what a true disciple thinks and feels. Thank you.

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