Advice for a Missionary Who is Prayerful and Working Hard; but Who Seldom Feels the Spirit.
Problem: A young Sister missionary (we will call her Sister Green) was not feeling the Spirit in her work the way she felt that she should. It seemed to her that she was most often just “going through the motions”, robot-like, with no obvious inspiration or warm feelings in her missionary work. Her experience contrasted with what she was hearing from other missionaries about their frequent spiritual promptings; and it contradicted promises in scripture. As a result, she began to doubt herself and the value of the work she was doing.
Points to Consider: Missionaries can have the Spirit in their work, but they may not feel it. If a person is praying earnestly for the Spirit; and if that person is basically worthy; it’s reasonable to assume that he or she will absolutely have the Spirit in their righteous endeavors. To believe otherwise would seem to contradict our understanding of who God is and how He works with us. As the Savior pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount: “Or what man is there of you, who if his son ask bread, will give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him.” (3 Nephi 14:9-11). Given this truth, it’s inconceivable that missionaries like Sister Green who are dedicated to the service of God, and who pray earnestly for divine direction, will not be granted the Spirit in their work.
On the other hand, it’s quite possible that a missionary might not be aware of having the Spirit, even when it’s present. This apparently happened to a group of Lamanites who had faith in the Savior, had been converted, baptized, and had received the Holy Ghost, but “they knew it not” (3 Nephi, 9:20, italics added). This is always a possibility because learning to recognize spiritual promptings, and developing the ability to distinguish them from similar experiences, is no simple matter. It takes effort and time to learn. As Elder Richard G. Scott has taught, there is a good reason for this. ”Our Father expects us to learn how to obtain that divine help by exercising faith in Him and in His Holy Son. Were we to receive inspired guidance just for the asking, we would become weak and ever more dependent on Him. He knows that essential personal growth will come as we struggle to learn how to be led by the spirit” (Richard G. Scott, “To Acquire Spiritual Guidance”, Ensign, November, 2009).
Along with it being a difficult skill to develop generally, it’s also true that being depressed, anxious, or distracted can limit our ability to recognize communication from the Spirit. As President Boyd K Packer taught, “The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all” (“The Candle of the Lord.” Ensign, January. 1983, 53). In Sister Green’s case, continual negative thinking about herself and worry about her performance was blocking those sensitive spiritual feelings. Ironically, she was so concerned about not feeling the Spirit; that in itself was a big part of the reason she wasn’t. In short, she did have the Spirit with her; but for several reasons, she didn’t recognize its influence.
In terms of how the Spirit works with us, we are told in the Doctrine and Covenants that “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) The term “mind” used in this and other scripture, seems to refer to intellectual processes in our brain, such as perception, learning, memory and attitudes, by which we process information. The term “heart”, when used in scripture, seems to refer to feelings or emotion. Centers of emotion are, of course, also located in the brain, not the heart. But the centers in the brain responsible for feelings, and the processes involved by which emotions are created and managed, are quite different from those involved in general intellectual function. Emotions also have a different impact on how we behave. It therefore makes sense that general intellectual processes and emotion would be distinguished from each other in scriptural references. The metaphors of heart and mind make this distinction nicely. But however defined, the relevant suggestion here is that the Spirit communicates with us using our natural faculties.
That being the case, it’s easy to see how distraction, disease, or any number of natural factors could interfere with this process. Satan likely also uses these same natural processes when he tempts us. Sister Green was beyond Satan’s influence when it came to tempting her to break mission rules, or do anything that would be morally inappropriate; but she was susceptible to believing that the Spirit wasn’t available to her, and that her best efforts were not good enough. This lie from the “father of lies” (Moses 4:4) provided a seed bed for negative conclusions about her worth and the work she was doing. It also took a lot of her focus and effort to process. Finally, it had triggered depression and anxiety; which will inevitably dampen one’s spiritual experience in their own right. Mental health problems alone, of course, don’t affect worthiness, or the presence of the Spirit in our lives; but they often do limit our ability to feel that presence.
Perhaps the difficulty inherent when mortals seek to receive and understand divine guidance is the basic reason for the fact that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (D&C 6:28). We can’t assume that feeling strongly about something means that it must be true; nor can we trust something to be true simply because of how much sense it makes intellectually. Essentially we have these two largely independent internal witnesses to consider when seeking divine direction; and they both need to agree. These two internal witnesses then need to be checked against the external witness of truth found in scripture and through priesthood leaders who hold the appropriate keys. When all three agree, there is good reason to assume that we have the truth. Sister Green experienced strong feelings of failure, but that impression was not confirmed by her Mission President, who held priesthood keys to make such judgments; nor, did it make sense intellectually; at least when she took the time to think carefully about it. The emotion was strong, but obviously misguided.
Even when engaged in the service of the Lord, inspiration will not always be provided. This is true for several reasons. For example, there may be times when missionaries don’t receive inspiration because what they would naturally do, based on their own understanding and experience, is entirely appropriate. This was apparently the case with two early missionaries. “Wherefore, go ye and preach my gospel, whether to the north or to the south, to the east or to the west, it mattereth not, for ye cannot go amiss (D&C 80:3). Sister Green and her companions were always doing their best to preach the gospel; and that desire and intent meant that the decisions they made on their own initiative were usually acceptable to the Lord. Sister Green also had a year of experience as a missionary at this point. During that year she had learned a lot and grown considerably in her teaching ability and people skills. Therefore, inspiration was not as often needed as it had been earlier in her service. For these reasons she didn’t feel the Spirit as often as she did when she first began her mission; or as often as she thought she should. Perhaps this wasn’t so much a problem as it was evidence of the Lord’s confidence in her.
There may also be times when missionaries are not inspired because there is nothing that they can do that will affect the outcome. For example, if two missionaries have prayerfully prepared for a lesson, and are teaching with a prayer in their heart, it’s safe to assume that they will be inspired to say just the right thing (D&C 100:6); or remember the perfect scripture, assuming that doing so would make a difference to those they are teaching. But those being taught may not be open to the Spirit or ready for what is being taught. Or the “perfect” scripture in the mind of the missionary might in fact not be the perfect scripture for the investigator. In those cases, there is again, no real need for the inspiration sought.
Furthermore, there may also be other times when we are left on our own because acting on our own in a particular situation will help us learn an important lesson; and/or it may be part of the testing experience that life is intended to be (Abraham 3:25). I remember as a young missionary having the assignment to drive a visiting General Authority to a mission conference. My companion and I hadn’t communicated properly and I thought the conference was to be held in a chapel on the West side of Toronto, Canada; when in fact, it was scheduled for a meeting house on the East side. Before the error became obvious, we had traveled a good ways in the wrong direction in rush hour traffic. As a result, the General Authority, was an hour late for the meeting. One might expect that given the importance of the General Authority’s time; not to mention the time of all the missionaries assembled for the conference, inspiration would have been provided to avoid the mistake. My companion and I had certainly prayed for help with our responsibilities relative to the conference; but no such luck. The good news is that this unfortunate incident taught my companion and me an important lesson on planning and communication; not to mention the test of patience it provided for the Mission President and the visiting General Authority.
For all of these reasons, worthy missionaries will not always receive the revelation they seek; which is apparently just as it should be. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught, “The Lord’s way puts limits on how often He will speak to us by His Spirit. Not understanding this, some have been misled by expecting too much revelation…We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation” (Dallin H. Oaks, “In His Own Time, in His Own Way”, Ensign, August, 2013). Likewise from Elder Boyd K. Packer, “I have learned that strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently” (Boyd K Packer, That All May be Edified, Deseret Book, 1982, p.337). The Lord knows what we need in all circumstances, and He will provide what is needed in all cases; but not necessarily what is expected.
Dr. Gary G. Taylor