Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

“The Spirit is a fickle thing”

Posted by BrianJ on March 4, 2007

In another discussion, Robert C wrote, “In my experience, the Spirit is a fickle thing and any little thing might spook it.”

I’ve felt something similar, said similar, and heard similar many times. And what do I mean by it, and what does Robert, et at. mean?

What I mean is that the Spirit cannot stand evil thoughts and wickedness. It “flees the room” when confronted by the least bit of sin, because it cannot bear to be in the presence of sin. So, if I want the Spirit with me, I have to be extra careful not to offend it.

But I’ve sensed a problem with this lately. If I understand the Spirit this way, then how should I understand the following scriptures?

For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost. (2 Nephi 31:17)

And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words. (Helaman 5:45)

For no man has seen God at any time in the flesh, except quickened by the Spirit of God. (D&C 67:11)

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:4)

I think these verses describe a Spirit that is far from fickle, flighty, or daunted by sin. Rather, I see a power that can transform men into angels, that is able to mediate between imperfect men and an all-powerful God, and burns and destroys sin as a refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2). Isn’t this the Spirit that rescued Alma from the pains of hell? the Spirit that made Elijah tremble with its sheer stillness? Does the Spirit’s flame ever flicker when the winds of the adversary blow?

So who is fickle, flighty, and fearful? Was Alma speaking to Korihor, or to me, when he said:

Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God. (Alma 30:42)

13 Responses to ““The Spirit is a fickle thing””

  1. Beautiful, Brian. Thanks for the post. I have little to add but “Amen.”

    I’m going to write a post over the next couple of days on the nature of the Spirit, since I think the discussion you link to above really moves around that question. This post has got me thinking about how to do that.

  2. Robert C. said

    Agreed, great post BrianJ (despite you quoting me in the beginning!). I think that scripturally this is related to the idea of “election by grace” and the issues we were discussing on the “Secrecy in the Gospel of Mark” thread. That is, I think on the one hand there are many things we can do to invite the Spirit into our lives, lessons, study, etc., but that there is also an important sense in which we don’t have control over when and how the Spirit will work. A couple other scriptural phrases along these lines that I’d like to think about more when I have time are “the Spirit bloweth where it listeth” and “waiting on the Lord.”

  3. robf said

    I think the fire analogy is very good. Many of us are trying to walk around in the wind and keep a match lit, while many of the other types of experiences you mention require fueling the fire into something much more powerful. It may not be possible to keep an inferno going all the time, but hopefully we’re closer to stoking up the Spirit to that level than we are to having it go out of our lives. Unfortunately, I find myself often in more danger of having the flame go out, than in having it consume me entirely.

  4. Jim F. said

    I think that we often unintentionally ignore that we have the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Of course that Spirit can withdraw, but the gift we receive is that he can be with us at all times. If he is as flighty as we often seem to think, then the gift is an odd one. Indeed, if he is that easily repelled, it seems to me that there is little difference between those who have the Gift of the Holy Ghost and those who have the Light of Christ.

    That the Gift of the Holy Ghost is given as a commandment, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” suggests that he is waiting for us to receive him, that he is anxious for us to do so, and that we are the ones who either receive or reject him rather than him being the one who leaves. From what I’ve heard excommunicants say, I think that feeling guilty about a sin we’ve committed is not the same feeling as the genuine absence of the Holy Ghost. It may be even that our guilt is evidence of his presence rather than his absence. Perhaps he helps us feel guilty to help us repent.

  5. robf said

    I agree that we may not notice the background influence of the Holy Ghost in our everyday lives. But it also seems from the sacrament prayers that having the spirit with us is at least partially conditional upon obeying the commandments and always remembering the Savior. If I watch 24 this evening, I’m not sure I’ll be doing either!

  6. brianj said

    Joe—I’m looking forward to it.

    Robert—I’m glad you took the quote in good spirit (no pun intended—I promise!). As I hinted in the post, 2-3 weeks ago I wouldn’t have thought anything of the phrase you wrote, because I was saying the same thing myself. Thanks for tying this in to the discussion on election on the other thread.

    robf—I’m not sure I follow you. Part of my feeling when writing this post is that the Spirit is considerably more active—more “alive”—than we typically appreciate. So even at those times when we feel as if “the flame is weak and fading,” I’m not so sure that’s the Spirit’s flame or our own that we are sensing (and, admittedly, I’m not so sure I know what I mean by that!). You do have a point, though, in #5: the sacrament prayers make it pretty clear that there are conditions that must be met.

    Jim—Oh, thank you so much for bringing up the gift of the Spirit. That was one of the things nagging me in the back of my mind as I mulled this over the last few weeks, but I never brought it out to really examine it. Very interesting thoughts on the commandment portion, and especially on the notion that the Holy Ghost actually stays with us through sin to help (allow?) us to feel guilty. How far would you take this last thought? We talk of “godly sorrow” for sin, though it strikes me as odd to say that sorrow for sin is godly, seeing that God cannot sin and therefore cannot feel sorrow for having done so. We also talk about the condescension of Christ, but not of the Spirit; nevertheless, if the Spirit is really with us during these low times, and is instilling in us some form of godliness or grace that allows us to really feel the separation between our sinful act and the glory of God—well, I feel pretty sick that I would ever drag the Holy Spirit through the muck that is my sin, but I “stand all amazed” at the Spirit’s condescension.

  7. m&m said

    This discussion made me think of the talk by Elder Bednar from last May. It’s worth a re-read perhaps, but here’s a clip that might be relevant…???

    As we gain experience with the Holy Ghost, we learn that the intensity with which we feel the Spirit’s influence is not always the same. Strong, dramatic spiritual impressions do not come to us frequently. Even as we strive to be faithful and obedient, there simply are times when the direction, assurance, and peace of the Spirit are not readily recognizable in our lives. In fact, the Book of Mormon describes faithful Lamanites who “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not” (3 Ne. 9:20).

    The influence of the Holy Ghost is described in the scriptures as “a still small voice” (1 Kgs. 19:12; see also 3 Ne. 11:3) and a “voice of perfect mildness” (Hel. 5:30). Thus, the Spirit of the Lord usually communicates with us in ways that are quiet, delicate, and subtle.

    Withdrawing Ourselves from the Spirit of the Lord
    In our individual study and classroom instruction, we repeatedly emphasize the importance of recognizing the inspiration and promptings we receive from the Spirit of the Lord. And such an approach is correct and useful. We should seek diligently to recognize and respond to promptings as they come to us. However, an important aspect of baptism by the Spirit may frequently be overlooked in our spiritual development.

    We should also endeavor to discern when we “withdraw [ourselves] from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in [us] to guide [us] in wisdom’s paths that [we] may be blessed, prospered, and preserved” (Mosiah 2:36). Precisely because the promised blessing is that we may always have His Spirit to be with us, we should attend to and learn from the choices and influences that separate us from the Holy Spirit.

    The standard is clear. If something we think, see, hear, or do distances us from the Holy Ghost, then we should stop thinking, seeing, hearing, or doing that thing. If that which is intended to entertain, for example, alienates us from the Holy Spirit, then certainly that type of entertainment is not for us. Because the Spirit cannot abide that which is vulgar, crude, or immodest, then clearly such things are not for us. Because we estrange the Spirit of the Lord when we engage in activities we know we should shun, then such things definitely are not for us.

  8. m&m said

    A few more thoughts….
    This topic of godly sorrow is actually one I have been wanting to write about for a while. Look at Alma’s experience again as recounted in Alma 36. When he looked at the sin and focused on that alone, he felt the pains of hell. He was tormented. He was miserable. He feared even the idea of coming to God’s presence. He felt fear…worldly sorrow. Hopeless sorrow. I’m not sure the Spirit was necessarily with him much at that point…at least not a lot, but only because of where Alma’s focus was. (Although perhaps the Spirit helped him remember his father’s (the prophet’s) words.)

    The Spirit came when he looked to/thought on Christ. And He came immediately, and powerfully. Godly sorrow is about turning to and focusing on Christ, not on the sin itself. Looking to Christ opens up the power of the gift of the Holy Ghost in our lives. No wonder we are to “always remember Him”! — and that we are promised to always have His Spirit when we do! The Spirit will gladly pull us out of the muck if we do the looking and the remembering. I don’t know if that is getting at what you are writing about here, but it’s something I have been thinking about a lot. And with Elder Bednar’s words, it makes me think that we are the fickle ones, not the Spirit. And what makes us fickle? Forgetting Christ! The Spirit is the vehicle for the power of the Atonement. If we are seeking the Atonement, we are inviting the Spirit into our lives. THAT is what godly sorrow is about, IMO. And I can imagine that the Spirit would WANT to be a part of the process somehow, to nudge/pull/inspire/whisper/whatever to get us away from sin and toward Christ.

  9. Matthew said

    There seem to be 2 questions.

    1) When the spirit and we separate, did the spirit leave us or did we leave it? I think the answer people are saying is that we are the ones leaving the spirit versus the other way around. I understand why people say that. For one thing it keys off of the words “receive the Holy Ghost.” However we sometimes forget that the opposite is also true–the Holy Ghost is something given and taken. The word “gift” suggests something God gives to us. See also D&C 33:15. But I’m more interested in the second question (and am I right Brian that this is the one you are getting at?)

    2) What does it take for the spirit and us to separate (ignoring the question of who does the leaving (q1))? Is our relationship flighty, fickle? Or, to restate: for a normal member of the Church who often does fall short, is this an on-again-off-again relationship?

    Or, to speak in specifics, when I’m not feeling very patient with my children, I certainly feel different, not as good as when I am feeling more loving. Is that difference the difference between having the Holy Ghost as my companion and not? Or should we think about the Holy Ghost as my constant companion in both cases but in one case I feel confirmation that this is good and in another case my companion is helping me see that this isn’t good. (Has this question become one purely of semantics?)

    A quick search on “constant companion” turns up just one famous reference [[D&C 121:46]]. The scripture seems to me ambiguous. On the one hand the phrase “constant companion” suggests a relationship which isn’t flighty. But that scripture does set a high bar: “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly.”

    For me D&C 20:32 is helfpul and suggests a more constant relationship. This “possibility that man may fall from grace” doesn’t sound like a description of a grace that constantly comes and goes. As I see it, if we desire to serve God and are willing to sacrifice what He asks of us and are seeking his help in becoming more like him, then our failings do not constitute a “fall from grace” and as the word “grace” itself suggests, these failings (aka sins) are paid for by Christ. As such we will continue with our companion the Holy Ghost. On the other hand, we cannot tolerate sin–we cannot be complacent.

    So there is a narrow line between having faith in this grace, faith that the Holy Ghost is a constant companion, and being complacent with our sins.

  10. Robert C. said

    Hmmm, so much to think about…. I will say that I was originally thinking about this in the teaching environment where it seems the teacher might very well have the Spirit but the class as a whole might not. Analogously, I think we read about many prophets who had the Spirit with them but the people rejected the prophet and the Spirit (whether they had the gift of the Holy Ghost or not). So the fickleness I originally had in mind could indeed be viewed as the fickleness of the humans not the fickleness of the Spirt itself.

    But I still think this view oversimplifies things too much (though any single expressed view probably oversimplifies things…). This is closely related to thoughts I have from previous posts written by BrianJ (at his C&C blog) and Jim F. (at the T&S blog) regarding how we might view God as a vending machine or a Santa figure where all we have to do is follow the correct formula for asking and God will give us a formulaic response (i.e. put in quarter and get a prize). How can we not think of the Spirit as fickle and yet also not think of the Spirit as a “John” for hire (as I think BrianJ once so succinctly put it)?

    I think it’s possible for us, with confidence in Christ, to have the Spirit with us, but we cannot be confident in our ability to get others to feel the Spirit. And, inasmuch as this latter assumption is true, we are left with fear and trembling in the face of our call to teach and preach. And I think this outstripping-of-confidence aspect of our call to help others is a crucial element of loving others in the sense that it drives us to do all that we can and pray wishing we could do more (like Alma 29, with the same caveats—that is, I think there is a lively dynamic in the tension between wanting to do more and yet being content with what we can do, a dynamic that makes change-for-the-better possible, and a dynamic rooted in Christ-given hope…).

  11. robf said

    But we also read of teachers who have the Spirit so strongly that it is impossible for their hearers to deny their words.

    I agree with what most have said here, and perhaps rather than saying that the Spirit is like a fire, perhaps it is best to say that its influence in our lives or how we experience it is like a fire. When I’m watching 24, and focusing on that, I’m not giving the Spirit much to work with. That doesn’t mean that the Spirit has totally withdrawn, and I am prompted to avert my eyes during the lingerie commercials. But if I had turned off the TV and prayed about how to help my Home Teaching families, I’m sure I would have given the Spirit more to work with in my life and I would have had a different, and more powerful, experience with the Spirit. I would have felt more of a warming fire, rather than jus the spiritual pilot lights that we have through the Light of Christ and that we are promised through the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

  12. What a rich discussion!

    Substitute teaching seminary yesterday afternoon, I watched as the Spirit led the discussion down a number of avenues I could never have anticipated. Curiously enough, it ended up in a discussion about the Godhead, and the peculiar role of the Holy Ghost. How significant is it that the D&C calls this “the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost”? And what of the sealing power of the “Holy Spirit of promise,” discussed both in Ephesians and the D&C? And how about that “still small voice,” the “voice of sheer silence,” that “often times maketh my bones to quake” as it “whispereth through and pierceth all things”? And how are we even to begin to think about “the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost” and the subsequent promise to “speak with the tongue of angels and shout praises to the Holy One of Israel”? Or again, “my word and my Spirit, and the power of God unto the convincing of men”?

    More and more, I’m convinced the Holy Ghost is just as Rob describes it in #11… a fire that we have been invited to throw ourselves into, but which we use for a number of different purposes (instead? appropriately?).

    But all of this is not even to begin to approach the Holy Ghost’s role in the Godhead. And that’s what I’ll post on. I hope to be able to get it on today. We’ll see.

  13. cherylem said

    #12 Joe
    I too have been thinking about the Godhead.

    I’d like to hear what you have to say about this.

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