The Fear of God

The slate of speakers for sacrament meeting that Sunday consisted of four formerly inactive members (one teenager and three adults) who had recently started coming back to church. Jake*, periodically wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand, recounted with a touch of awe the experience of receiving the priesthood as a sixteen-year-old. Tom, a self-effacing jokester, described the difficulties of finding a place as a divorced, middle-aged man. Mandy openly talked about her children’s battles with drugs and her own bouts of depression and doubt.

Mike, who seemed more than a bit shell-shocked to be standing at a pulpit, recounted the first time he had truly felt the Spirit. It was in the North Visitors’ Center at Temple Square, standing in front of the Christus statue. “I felt this presence,” he said. “I could tell it hadn’t come from inside me or my head. It scared me so bad I had to get out of there.”

I have never heard such an honest depiction of a spiritual encounter.

A few weeks ago I was having a discussion with my son. I don’t remember now what sparked the talk, but I remember asking him to pray for the Spirit. “I don’t want to,” he said. “I’ve only felt the Holy Ghost once, and I didn’t like it. That was two years ago, and I haven’t felt it since.”

As happens so often as a parent, I was left speechless. No lesson, no talk had prepared me for how to respond. We are always told to teach our children how to pray, how to seek the Spirit. Inherent in that counsel is the idea that the child will want to seek the Spirit, and when/if they feel it, it will be a positive experience. But a manifestation of the stark reality that God truly exists, that religion is not a psychological crutch or handy social phenomenon, can be overwhelming.

I’ve thought of Mike many times since that sacrament meeting, how his path wound over some pretty tough territory, how he sits awkwardly in the back and leaves quickly, but how he keeps coming and remembers the power he felt before an image of the Son of God.

I pray that my son will be willing to keep coming, and I pray that God will be gentle with him.

*names have been changed

15 thoughts on “The Fear of God

  1. I would have liked to have been in that sacrament meeting.

    And I wish that I didn’t worry about/expect to hear the same thing from my own daughter. I guess we just keep praying.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve struggled with teaching my children about feeling the Spirit, too, because I think I experience it differently than most. I don’t cry or get emotional, but feel my mind quickened and have energy and excitement about the gospel. My daughters have complained that they feel emotionally manipulated in seminary/YW/EFY to try to make them cry and when they don’t, they think they don’t feel the Spirit and that they are trying to resist it. Yep, we keep praying – for everyone.

  3. I had exactly this experienc with one of my sons (“I felt the spirit and I didn’t like it”). I agree — it was completely disorienting.

    In my son’s case, he had a clear understanding that with testimony comes responsibility, and he did not want the responsibiility. He finally reached a point where Mom and Dad were “enough” church for him. (Sadly, we are not enough church, but he thinks we are.)

    Good luck as you walk this path. And good luck to your son, also. May your patient, heartfelt love bless him in ways that he needs the most.

  4. I had not thought about perceiving the Spirit in this light before. (But sometimes I figuratively quake in my boots when I hear certain apostles speak–anticipating promptings to change certain aspects of my life. :)) I can relate to Barbara’s daughters though. I HATE when I sense someone is trying to force an emotion out of me. It usually kills it for me right there. I have learned to separate my frustrated feelings for uber-emotional talks from the actual gospel though. The truths of the gospel are real but not always accompanied by weeping. And not everything we hear at church is true doctrine either. As an example, I recently heard my teenage daughter casually remark that it was the responsibility of the young women to make sure the young men stay on the path. [You should have seen her two older brothers faces and heard their replies.] I assume that she got this choice counsel from someone at church. I was (very) quick to point out that while she should strive to be a good example and influence, making sure the young men are on the straight and narrow is NOT one of her responsibilities and if anyone ever tells/hints or implies otherwise, they are preaching false doctrine. Just because she heard it at church does not make the church not true though.

  5. My daughter (6 years old) has expressed this sentiment before. Sometimes she welcomes the spirit she feels in reverent “Sunday” music and the emotion it brings with it, and other times she doesn’t want that, and has a hard time recognizing that the spirit can manifest itself in the happiness and comfort that comes from sitting around the dinner table with family in a warm loving environment. There are many ways that the spirit can speak to us.

    I appreciate this post as the way it reminds me to point out to my daughter, “What are your feelings right now? Do you like it? What does it make you think or feel?” at different times, so as to point out that, “That happiness and joy you feel right now? That is one of the ways the spirit speaks to us,” or, “that quiet comfort and warmth that you feel right now? That is the spirit telling you that you are in a good place doing good things.”

    I will try to look for these opportunities more this week.

    Thanks for the reminder, and good luck with your son. He must be a very tender and sensitive boy.

  6. Isn’t parenting hard sometimes? More often than not I feel like I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. I’ve certainly had my share of those stunned-into-silence moments.

    Learning to recognize the Spirit has been a life-long challenge for me, one that I’m still wrestling with—and I’m 50! So it’s no wonder our youth—and those of us who are older—would feel some confusion or hesitation over feeling the Spirit. Because children and teens often assume that feeling the Spirit has to involve having an overwhelming emotional experience (a la EFY, girls’ camp testimony meeting, seminary, etc), they may miss those subtler, more common manifestations of the Spirit. I think we need to stress to our youth that while sometimes the Spirit speaks to us in dramatic ways—such as in Mike’s case or your son’s case—most often the Spirit speaks to us in quiet, understated ways.

    You’ve probably already done this, but asking your son for more details about his experience (if he’ll share them with you) might be a good jumping-off point for a discussion. What did he feel when he felt the Spirit? What about the experience made him uncomfortable? Then you could talk about the many ways the Spirit manifests itself to us–most commonly in small, simple, quiet ways, such as feeling peace of mind, comfort, reassurance, and a conviction of truth. Your son most likely has felt these impressions over the years but may be thinking that he only felt the Spirit in that one dramatic moment. Helping him recognize those other moments when the Spirit was whispering to him may make him feel more comfortable seeking the Spirit as a quiet, steady companion.

    I don’t know if you even wanted any advice, so I apologize if I’m off the mark. Most of all, I wanted you to know that I feel for you—it’s just plain hard to be a parent and to guide our children competently as they try to find their way spiritually. At times the responsibility feels overwhelming! Grandparenting is looking more and more appealing to me. =)

  7. I remember feeling the same way as your son when I was little. I hated Primary because it felt so different from school, from playing with my friends, from everything else. It wasn’t that it was an inherently bad feeling, it was just so different from anything else I was used to that it made me totally uncomfortable. I hated hearing my Dad talk about the gospel in family home evening because his voice would get all weird like he was about to cry, and being around crying people makes me super uncomfortable.
    Luckily, however, these weren’t my only exposure to spiritual matters. I loved reading scriptures on my own, and singing hymns and Primary songs. Reading and singing were my two favorite things anyways, so I think being able to learn to feel the Spirit in those safe environments helped me understand that feeling when it came in less-comfortable situations. I’m grateful to my parents for creating an environment where I could feel the Spirit in many different situations, because if it had only been at church I would never have gotten used to it enough to feel comfortable.

  8. I’m 24, and still figuring out what it feels to feel the Spirit. I used to think it was supposed to be like the feelings I got at EFY and girls’ camp testimony meetings, but as I get older, I realize that it’s not always like that.

    And I am also tired of the sentiment that if you are not emotional or crying, then you aren’t feeling the Spirit. Yes, some people do become a little emotional when overcome with the Spirit, but some don’t and there’s nothing wrong with it.

  9. I have an acquaintance who, previous to her listening to the missionaries, had a similar experience walking into the foyer of a temple. She did actually turn and run out because she found the feeling as she walked into that place so overwhelming.

    I agree with the comments that our descriptions of the Holy Spirit are far too narrow as we describe them to our children. There is a wide expanse of ways the Spirit communicates with us, a few of them dramatic, but most of them simply a bit uplifting and helpful. One of the kindest things we can do is to watch for the times when our children are feeling that light or peace in ways that feel thoughtful or comforting in small ways to them (not us) and just make a small comment that helps them to identify it for what it is. You can’t do it out of a sense of anxiety. It must simply be a kindly shared observation.

    Joseph Smith spoke of the spirit of revelation being one of intelligence flowing into you or “sudden strokes of ideas” or understanding. Sort of like when you suddenly get something that was puzzling you, I surmise. Parley P. Pratt spoke of the Spirit inspiring virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity and strengthening your perception and making you more comfortable with people. Both of those are different from emotionalism or the “burning in the bosom” that we quote so often. There are many, many different ways that people perceive and benefit from interaction with the Holy Ghost.

    Some people are actually wired in such a way that huge surges of emotion are very scary or discomfiting. That’s just the way their neurons process the sensation. If you are such a person then if the only definition of “feeling the Spirit” is one of high emotion that is going to to cause you trouble. Some people have minds and bodies that just won’t stop moving from one idea or action to another. They are in constant mental motion. For them, group crowd control (aka Primary) is an extremely difficult place to focus or feel at ease. Helping them to understand that such is normal and that there are myriad other ways to find that connection with the Spirit, as Riss did, and helping them to recognize those is beneficial.

  10. And my experience is that, yes, God is gentle with our discomfited teenaged sons. I am sure he will be with yours.

  11. I had one of those kinds of conversations with my daughter tonite, albeit of a little different flavor.

    I had two talks come to mind from Conference about how spiritual progress is really little by little and line upon line. I wished I could pack 40 years of learning into her little 9-year-old spirit, but I realized that she simply has to walk the path and learn for herself what the Spirit feels like.

    It’s a scary feeling to know that at any point they could question or not want to stay on the path long enough to figure it out and to trust what they have felt — even if it isn’t what they thought it ‘should’ be. What I’m hoping to do is help her learn to articulate what it means to her, what it feels like to her, and where and how she might be seeing and feeling God’s hand in her life.

    Parenting can be hard stuff!

    p.s. Thanks for sharing the thoughts from the people in your meeting. Bless their honest hearts. I love hearing stories like that…because I think for most people, the spiritual journey is pretty messy at times.

  12. Thank you for sharing this.
    In the calling I have right now & with girl’s camp coming up very soon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole emotion vs. the Spirit thing.
    This little essay and all your comments are a great help.
    I reminded me of a time a few years ago when I went to camp with a developmentally delayed older young woman who’s mother had died in childbirth. Early in the week,she shared with me that sometimes she thought about her mom and it made her feel uncomfortable & scared. She became very aggitated during testimony meeting and as we talked, she told me that she felt very uncomfortable right then-that she was having the very same feeling that she had when she thought about her mother.
    What an honor and blessing it was for me to be able to help her recognize what that feeling really was and where it was coming from.

  13. One of the jobs we have is parents is to guide the spiritual growth. We need to recognize when our children are feeling the Spirit and let them know what that feeling is. If not, I can understand how it would be a terrifying experience for some.

    Two months ago we had a very spiritual sacrament meeting. A new family had just been baptized and the Spirit was so strong in that meeting. When the meeting was over my 13 year old daughter didn’t want to leave because she felt so much love. I told her she was feeling the Spirit and that He was there to let her know that this family had received the gift of the Holy Ghost that day just like she had when she was baptized. Since then she has told me of other times she had felt the Spirit. It was a wonderful “light bulb” moment.

    I pray that I can help my other children recognize when they are feeling the Spirit.

  14. I think that it is good to emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit as comforter. I have felt a great deal of peace at times in my life. Accept the fear of the child while also sharing how you have felt when you have felt the Holy Spirit. Let them know how special they are and that God knows them personally and that he is always there for Him. Let the child know that there may have been times when they have felt the Holy Spirit and did not recognize that the good feeling was from the Holy Spirit.

  15. In our Saturday night Stake Conference meeting we also had a line-up of reactivated members. I think it’s important to know that there are many paths t finding comfort in the gospel. Our Stake pres. also shared the experiences he had with a wayward son and urged people not to be judgemental of parents, but instead to reach out in love.

    I needed to hear this. I don’t talk about the different manifestations of the Spirit enough with my kids. I agree that parenting is hard!

Comments are closed.