Have you ever had a distinct and unexpected impression?
When I was a young Boy Scout—and I was very young for my age—I went to a week longe scout camp. I left home with a fresh face and a full pack. Early in our week in the mountains, a frightening impression settled in on me. I had the feeling that my baby sister had been bitten by a rattlesnake. Since our family lived in Emigration Canyon and since we often saw rattlesnakes around our home, the idea was entirely plausible. Because I loved (and continue to love) my baby sister, the thought was very distressing.
Every day from sunup to sundown I fretted about my sister. Camp was miserable. There was no phone service at our remote camp so I could not call to check on Lorene. I wondered about asking my scoutmaster to take me. All week long I fretted.
By the end of the week at camp I was quite sure that Lorene was either dead or hospitalized. The drive home seemed endless. As the truck pulled up to our home, I was filled with dread. I was quite surprised to see little Lorene riding her tricycle in front of the house. No snake had been seen all week.
Meanings and feelings
What did the feeling mean? Was heaven mocking me? Was I being tested?
My explanation is more simple: “That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50:23). The impression I had was from Satan, not God. God does not mock, cajole, annoy, torment, or tease us. It is contrary to His nature. Satan is the father of lies and misery.
I learned an important lesson from that camp experience (though it took me decades to formulate it): Feelings and impressions are only creditable if they come with that signature lilt that testifies that they are from God. Otherwise they are no better guides for wise living than a fortune cookie at a second-rate Chinese takeout.
“That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light” (D&C 50:24).
The principle of the rattlesnake has broad application. Satan likes to keep us in a state of low-grade unrest. He wants us bothered and fretful enough that we do not break into joy and goodness. But he does not want us irritated enough to take off our spiritual shoes and shake out the pebbles.
I have learned that a heavy sense of sadness is not some sure indicator of our spiritual failure. It often means that we are simply tired. It can also mean that Satan is trying to “interrupt [our] rejoicing” (See Alma 30:22).
One popular use kind of satanic misery is that subtle feeling of irritation, annoyance, or disappointment with our spouses. We brood silently. We mull over their shortcomings. We begin to feel cheated and misled. We begin to rewrite our relationship history with discontent as the theme. We have a low-grade spiritual fever. The diagnosis is chronic uncharity syndrome. What a quiet but grand triumph for Satan.
Satan also loves to have us feel irritated with our children, our bishop, our co-workers, and our lives. He relishes misery and he knows that the best way to get humans to consume massive quantities of misery is to subtly sneak it into our daily diet. One spoonful at a time, we consume tons of murk.
What to do with those feelings
So, are feelings to be distrusted or ignored? Will they only lead us into trouble?
A sweet Christian couple in a rural Utah town came to know and love a young man in their neighborhood. When he was preparing to leave for his mission, he invited them to attend his farewell even though they were not LDS. They attended. In fact, they felt warmed and blessed by the music and messages in the service. They later consulted their minister. “Why did we feel so good when we were at that LDS service?” The minister’s response: “You can’t trust your feelings. Never listen to your feelings!”
If that counsel were put into action, it would undermine one of God’s chief ways of communicating with us. It would leave us at the mercy of cold—and fallible—logic. It would leave us shivering.
God recommends otherwise. Paul listed the first fruits of the Spirit as “love, joy, and peace” (Galatians 5:22). Those fruits have a distinctly emotional character. If the Spirit is our sure guide and He primarily speaks to us through feelings, we must not discount feelings as a guide in our lives.
Yet not all feelings are created equal. Some are more trustworthy than others. Brother Dayley has wisely observed that “we know we are learning under the influence of the Holy Ghost if we are being edified. Edification is characterized by a perception of goodness, a noticeable enlarging of the soul, and enlightenment of the mind. Those who desire to learn by faith must continually reject darkness and seek light” (K. Newell Dayley, (1994). “And Also by Faith.” Brigham Young University 1993–94 devotional and fireside speeches. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University.)
Those impressions that edify should be honored with remembrance and action.
Spiritual checks and balances
The Lord provides spiritual checks and balances. In addition to providing the edification test for feelings, He has also provided the good-sense test for thoughts.
“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).
We can test any impression by its sweet, inviting nature and by its consonance with good sense. We should join our minds with our hearts in discerning God’s will. That can be a powerful combination. Our minds can provide a unique balance to our feelings.
It is logically unlikely that God will ask us to embezzle, cheat, or lie. He is not likely to ask us to hurt each other. Our minds know this. They can help us challenge those impressions that are not heavenly.
When our feelings and good sense work in heavenly harmony, the fruits of the spirit are the natural result. In addition to love, joy, and peace, there are long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Galatians 5:22–23). These are sure evidence of God’s presence and influence.
There are rare times that God has commanded something contrary to logic. God asked Nephi to slay Laban. But He provided not only the spiritual impression but also the clear rationale: “Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13).
Cultivating spiritual sensitivity
If you are as good as I am at rationalization and self-deception, then you know the importance of cultivating spiritual sensitivity. This is a lifelong process. Most of my spiritual blunders were the result of listening too selectively to the messages of my emotions and treating logic as a servant to discernment rather than as a partner and friend. Our impulsive desires can get in the way of what the Lord wants for us unless partnered with good sense.
What are the principles of emotional management? I recommend a selective attention to feelings. Ignore negative feelings. Go toward the light. Push away darkness. “Look to me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36).
There is an exception to the general rule of ignoring bad feelings. On special occasions God may send a warning feeling of foreboding. There is a way to discern whether it comes from Father. When darkness comes from Satan, it leaves us feeling hopeless and helpless. If Father sends a warning, it will be attended by clear and specific instructions for getting out of the darkness and into the light.
For example, as you enter a movie theatre, you may have a clear sense of dread. If your mind also tells you that the movie is unfitting for a Latter-day Saint, heed the feeling. Go do something else. Following our impulses over His instructions leads to spiritual blindness. “They are walking in darkness at noon-day” (D&C 95:6).
Most instances of gloominess settle over us without providing a clear message to our minds. In such a situation we can ask God, “Is there something you want me to know?” If He does not give specific instructions and if we are doing what we believe to be right, we should dismiss and dispatch the feeling. God is not the author of gloom. We can fight darkness with faith and gratitude. (Some people may need counseling and medication to deal with various biological causes of depression.)
I suggest that we learn to tune in to the subtle whisperings of heaven. Notice the gentle nudge to offer kind words. Enjoy the wisp of love that comes unbidden in our daily lives. Dwell on feelings of peace and spiritual reassurance. Be grateful for every hint of goodness.
When we are less experienced, Satan will try to block such impressions by telling us, “Maybe that is just your own selfish desires talking. It is all just self-delusion” Satan wants us to turn from light to darkness. But if, for example, we have asked God how we can better serve him and a clear impression comes that is consistent with what the bishop or goodly parent might ask us to do, we should do it. If, in the course of our day, we feel inexplicably happy, we should thank heaven.
The metaphor for my spiritual goal may not seem very lofty: I want to become like a trained horse. I do not want God to have to jerk my head with His reins in order to turn me to an appointed rendezvous with service and growth. I want to become sensitive enough that the slightest nudge will redirect me. Perhaps one day He will merely lean in the saddle and I will discern His intent.
“. . . and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).