Today's first chapter comes from Unlocking the Power of the Spirit by Campbell Gray. Unlocking the Power of the Spirit teaches how we can increased the presence of the Holy Ghost in our lives.
Chapter One: The Softening Effect of Obedience
And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness, O remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it (Mosiah 2:41).
Obedience is the first law of heaven. It seems that there is little that can begin to occur in the spiritual development of our lives unless we are first obedient to the commandments.
When Adam was sent from the Garden of Eden and built an altar upon which he offered sacrifice, he was asked by the angel, “Why dost thou offer sacrifices?” His answer was “I know not save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6). Whether or not he had inquired of the Lord about the purpose we don’t know. What we do know was that he was obedient without knowing why.
By this initial act of obedience, Adam unlocked a relationship with his Father that was to be the foundation of his life, his method of learning and developing outside the Garden. He knew his Father had an intimate awareness of his being, personality and his needs. He believed that his Father had an all-encompassing vision of the road ahead, of the unique challenges that Adam would face and the decisions that he would be required to make. Adam, by being obedient, submitted a part of himself—his will—in order to obtain something that he believed would be more valuable than he could obtain for himself. He believed that if he followed his Father’s instruction, good would follow.
Whether we have entered into Church membership as adults or we have been raised in the Church, we are taught to obey certain key commandments and told that if we do, we will stay relatively firm in our path to eternal life. So we practice living the commandments. We try to order our time and our minds so that we can attend Church, fulfill callings, pay tithing, attend to personal prayer and scripture study, and much, much more. We offer each moment of obedience as simple acts of devotion, hoping that our Heavenly Father will see what we are doing and accept us because of these small sacrifices. We have faith that good will follow, our lives will be improved, we will have a greater measure of peace, and things will tend to go better for us. We witness our differences from others who have not “been converted.” We receive a measure of satisfaction as we accomplish and maintain our commitment to the Lord’s commandments. And our lives become steadily more ordered and devoted.
But our struggle to be obedient to the commandments can also lead to feelings of inadequacy. We all inevitably falter in our quest for perfection. We are only human. We are constantly falling short. When the swirl of events in my life beats me down and I feel I am not making any headway in my spiritual progression and worthiness, that I am missing those kinds of obligations that have spiritual and eternal consequences, such as being gentle with my children and my wife, being diligent in my callings, being attentive and engaged at Church and in the sacrament, and being faithful in missionary activity, prayer, and scripture study, I can feel that I am not good enough, that something is wrong with me, or that I am broken, that I am not sufficiently worthy for His attention and care.
Under these conditions, I can also begin to feel that others are better than I am. Or more problematically, I feel that my weaknesses are visible on the surface and others are judging me. And while I feel that kind of judgment is wrong, I still don’t feel justified in my delinquencies. When my wife, Jan, and I moved to Orem, Utah, we fully expected to be awoken at about 5:30 in the morning by the sound of hundreds of families running for exercise while reading aloud the scriptures and at the same time peeling and bottling peaches. We could picture ourselves standing bewildered on the front lawn in our pajamas watching these saints pass with looks of pity on their faces. Before we moved, we had family talks about how we would live the gospel as best as we could in a place where everyone else was going to be more practiced and streamlined in their Church performance than we were, and where the competition for righteousness was going to be pretty intense.
Of course our expectations were not met; there was no judgment, and we felt comfortable staying in bed well past 5:30. But regardless of my feeling of contentment at home in the mornings without judgment from our neighbors, I still carry with me the persistent internal burdens of doubt about my personal acceptance to the Lord and my worthiness to receive His attention. I feel shaky in my gospel and Church performance I feel insecure in my ability to keep up with the demands that are upon me. I feel unstable in my association with the Spirit. And I feel unsettled in my sense of myself and my relationships with others, feeling inadequate therefore to serve.
Those of us who are bound to the idea that obedience to the commandments automatically brings temporal and spiritual blessings are also bound to the reality that we are never doing enough to merit our own salvation. But it is also important to remember the Pharisees who obeyed every commandment to the letter but who did so without a love of God. Living the commandments in a similarly dogged way has the potential to create four complications in our lives:
1. When we are too attentive to the outward manifestations of our worthiness, we are in danger of tokenism. The Lord’s commandments become tokens to be checked off and offered as it were to the Lord, to our Church leaders and neighbors as measurements of our faith. We may begin to look to others as a gauge of our performance—constantly checking to see if we measure up. This is obedience according to a worldly perception of comparative assessment. It also mandates that consciously or unconsciously, we list all of the commandments so that we are aware of them in order to check them off. This usually results in frustration over the sheer volume of commandments or instructions we can consider as commandments. When our sense of obedience becomes burdensome, the net result is negative—resentment, stress, self-righteousness and even a reduction in faith. We become so anxiously engaged in a good cause that the cause and the effect ceases to be good.
2. Because this kind of obedience is comparative and is manifested outwardly, we may tend to judge others according to our “objective” criteria. We begin watching for the tokens in others and assess their righteousness accordingly. By this method we learn to doubt our own worthiness when observing those who appear to fit our predetermined formula to a greater extent than we do, and we tend to be intolerant of those who fit the formula less than we think we do—especially those within our stewardship (our family, class, quorum, ward, employ, etc).
3. We can be lulled into the sense that we can force the Spirit in our lives and force our place into the Celestial Kingdom. We can grow impatient with the Lord. If we are obedient, it seems we should automatically receive the blessing that we think pertains to that commandment we are living (a misinterpretation of D&C 130:20, 21). Or worse, we can believe that since we are obedient, anything we think or feel must come from the Spirit. No worse forms of abuse have occurred than under these assumptions.
4. Lastly, because this kind of obedience is focused in outward manifestations and in our assessment of them, it is focused in our heads. Our hearts, the place where the Spirit is first felt, the more sensitive receptors of the Spirit, are left undeveloped and perhaps even withered. We will not be practiced in listening and responding to the Spirit. We will not be able to recognize the Spirit and perhaps our Father will not recognize us. (I have often wondered if this is a significant dimension of the meaning of 3rd Nephi 14:20–23, also found in the Gospels).
With these dangers swirling around me, how do I become firm at my feet? How can I have the serene sense that the direction I am pointed in is in line with my eternal target? How can I feel secure in my thoughts—not that I have come to know everything, nor that what I am thinking is perfect—but that my attitude to thinking and to knowledge is acceptable to Him, that integrity and honesty and virtue are at the foundation of my thoughts? How can I be sure that throughout a period of Heavenly silence in my life, I am still in His care? In other words, how can I become firm at the feet and open in the arms? The answer, of course, has less to do with our obedience than with the Spirit.
Why is it that we are commanded to immerse ourselves in the scriptures? Because it is hoped that while so being immersed, something will happen to our hearts and minds, they will become softened and opened and the Spirit will be able to enter and communicate. Why is it that we are commanded to attend Church, partake of the Sacrament, pay tithing, live the Word of Wisdom, serve others, pray often, etc.? There are eternally beneficial dimensions of obeying each of the commandments. But at the foundation, each commandment places us in a situation in which our hearts and minds might be softened and become submissive in order for us to obtain the Spirit more fully, develop profound faith and be guided home to Him. Each commandment requires us to put aside our will and seek Him who is our Father, place our lives in His hands and let Him lead us by His Spirit.
It is a demonstration of hope that we obey the commandments. We have come to the stage at least, that we believe the words that have been spoken or the feelings we have obtained, declaring the existence of God and the reality of an eternal home, and so we obey in order that we have the right to hope for eternal life. Alternatively, as our lives are increasingly focused on obtaining the Spirit, our obedience serves to soften our minds and hearts, making us contrite and submissive before our Father. This deeper, more humble state of our relationship with our Father is also an act of hope: hope in the potential for Heavenly guidance, hope in the kindness and engagement of a loving Heavenly Father, hope in our acceptability to Him.
As we feel His guidance through His Spirit, as we feel the nudges and impressions to move in certain paths, or the confirmation of existing behaviors and attitudes, then our hope that we can be acceptable to him becomes faith. Because hope has been rewarded by the subtle voice that spiritual guidance is usually communicated by—the quiet assurance of the things hoped for—and we are inclined to move in the direction that has been our impression, it becomes faith and more so as we act upon it, acknowledge it, express gratitude for it, and move as we believe we have been instructed (Hebrews 11:1, JST). Then finally, as we look back on the feelings we obtained, and our actions that occurred because of them, and we see the good that has come from them and we are confirmed that indeed it was the Holy Ghost communicating that earlier impression, our faith steadily increases to knowledge and we become more open to guidance, more confident in our responses, more grateful for the results, more willing to be obedient, and more devoted to our Father. We come to know Him and His word. (See also Alma 32.) Thus, obedience to the commandments has real effect as our hearts and minds are softened, as we become open to the Spirit and its guidance, and as we become increasingly faithful.
But when we feel isolated from spiritual promptings we should learn to make decisions that are good and right by being true to our conscience. This is essential in the most important development of personal integrity and honesty which are critical factors in responding to the Holy Ghost. Some of the times when this capacity becomes difficult and important are in group settings, when peer pressure dims our ethical sense and we tend to loosen our grip on rightness and goodness in favor of acceptance or at least in favor of the status quo. It is also essential that we purge criticism (not careful analytical and critical thinking) from our hearts in an effort to turn them to Him and to hear the Spirit when it speaks to us.
My concern then becomes my ability to recognize the voice of the Spirit. And when we place our emphasis on living by the Spirit instead of by the law, our lives are filled with gentle obedience to the commandments in an effort to be softened sufficiently to hear the Spirit. The Holy Ghost becomes involved in our personal lives, instructing us along particular paths and suggesting particular actions and attitudes, and we learn to respond and build our confidence in its instruction. All spiritual instructions occur in harmony with the commandments and we feel a deep spiritual peace and serenity, which can positively affect our attitudes toward temporal and spiritual matters in this life.
If you’ll forgive the metaphor, it seems to me that spiritual development in this life shares many things in common with the basic mechanics of air flight. My work demands that I travel from time-to-time, and I am often intrigued by the dynamics of flight—probably moreso because I know so little about it. I am especially intrigued by how the force of gravity works in tension with the cushion of air resistance upon which planes travel. I observe the necessity of the runway and how short a runway a small, light plane requires for take-off in comparison to the length of runways for large and heavy planes. I observe how maneuverable a small plane is in comparison to a large plane. I observe how upon lift-off, small planes appear to point skywards and move directly there, whereas large planes point skywards but travel forward with much less lift. And I observe how quickly all planes bring their wheels up after take-off in order to reduce drag.
In the same way that runways are essential to flight, obedience is necessary for spiritual living. Being on the ground and progressing along the runway is like the process of learning to obey.
And in that process, we simply obey the commandments as we know them. How much the gravity of the world—rigidly obeying the commandments out of tokenism, or obeying the commandments but inwardly pointing down away from heaven—weighs upon us and the downward pressure of skepticism and resentment affect us determines the length of the runway that we require in order to lift off. Some just keep progressing on a perpetual runway never reaching the speed required for lift-off.
But our objective is to be free of these weights and pressures, to be heavenward pointing and traveling. As we become naturally obedient and our sense of duty in keeping the commandments is superceded by a broken heart and contrite spirit, and as we seek the Spirit in our worshipful obedience to keeping the commandments, we lift off and point heavenward—we are no longer tied to the practice of obedience for its own sake. But for some of us, the weight remains great, and while we point heavenward, our lift is slow as we travel forward. The less pull that gravity has upon us, the more directly and quickly we will travel heavenward. Under the influence of the Spirit, we are free of this world. We are light and easily manipulated, able to be sensitively led along the strait and narrow, but highly individualized path that leads back to Him.
There are times however, when the weather becomes intolerable—when lighting strikes and the winds become too intense, when the traveling gets too difficult and dangerous and we use all our energy just to keep the plane together regardless of where it is pointing. When intolerable grief and pain enter our lives, when all seems to be crumbling around us, or when physical, emotional, or spiritual tragedy strikes, all we might be able to do is to return to ground and merely obey those commandments we can, until enough time passes, the weather changes, and we are free to lift off again. These are the conditions—when our hearts and minds are burdened by other pressures and are not free to consider the sweet subtleties of the Spirit’s voice—under which living the commandments out of duty is all we can do. But it is bearable because we hope for, we look forward to, we long for the time when our being is sufficiently free again to feel the Spirit and when we are sufficiently free to obey it with some degree of confidence.
It seems to me that living the commandments out of duty is living our lives by generalized formula. Given our uniqueness both in personality and usefulness to Him, it is important that we free ourselves of formulaic living and open ourselves to the influence and manipulation of the Spirit. It is important to recognize the Spirit when it whispers to us and employ our already obedient nature in obeying its commandments. This kind of life brings stability and confidence in our direction forward. Ironically however, when we use this foundation to soften our hearts and seek the Spirit., when we respond to the subtle promptings we feel—when we become attuned to the idea that the Holy Ghost will guide us personally and uniquely and we place our trust in that source, indeed when we lift off the runway and fly freely with open arms towards Him, our firmness at the feet increases. We actually become more sure of Him, of ourselves and of the direction we are heading. We become even softer, and more positive and optimistic toward the world around us. We have greater levels of integrity and faith. We cease judging others and love them as unique children of our Father. The doubts of our minds are stabilized by our knowledge of His Spirit and the experiences we have already had. We become firmer at the feet and automatically at the same time, open in the arms.
This book is about our reception of the Holy Ghost and our relationship with deity. It is a book about living confident, individualized lives under the direction of the Holy Ghost. Therefore it is a book about being worthy and being acceptable. It is a book that explores doctrine, not by novel theoretical discussion, but as a consequence of reflection upon lived experience. It attempts to consider popular assumptions about the way things really present themselves in life. Because the doctrine emerges from lived experience, at times it is expressed in personal terms. I am a little anxious about this method of writing—it is always much safer to be objective and to be distanced from the examples that are used to carry the ideas—but it is important to me that you, as the reader, understand that the situations discussed are real and that by so understanding, you might have a greater capacity to transfer the lessons in this book to your own personal circumstances. My hope in this writing is that you will love yourselves more, love and acknowledge the Holy Ghost more, love and appreciate God and His Son more, and have a heightened hope in the real possibility of an eternal home with Deity.
Obedience to the Lord's commandments does not exempt us from trials and struggles in life. But it does qualify us for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can comfort us. It can chasten us. It can confirm our choices or prompt us in new directions. It can give us feelings or strokes of ideas. And learning to understand the subtle communications of the Spirit is one of the most important things we will ever do in this life. The Spirit is our lifeline to heaven. Yet at times, when we are weighed down by feelings of personal inadequacy or distracted by the trials and busyness of life, we may feel that we have been left largely on our own.
In this book, Campbell Gray suggests that the Holy Ghost can be a constant presence in our lives, gently leading us through our inclinations and desires. By learning to be attentive to the Spirit above all, we will find grace that overcomes our own personal weaknesses - not just over time, but in the very moment - and find ourselves being carried "wither (we) wouldest not" (John 21:18).