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 atBrigham 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.
- 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.
- Irritation diminishes. “And now I would that ye should be……full of patience and long suffering” (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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.