Spirituality is not one of those abilities you can develop through a simple checklist or by making a single decision. There are rules involved, and the need for time – a lot of time. The instructions in the scriptures and in Conference talks from the Brethren on how to develop spirituality are not real specific. There is a good reason for that. Let’s take a look at why this is not something that is talked about on a regular basis, and look at the rules that govern the development of spirituality.
Following is a quote from President Gordon B. Hinckley from an article written for the New Era in 1999. This quote will be our jumping off point in the discussion on spirituality and how to develop it. As you read this quote look for specifics. Ask yourself questions about what you are reading. When you are finished reading it I will ask some questions I came up with then we will go from there.
The acquisition of understanding and enthusiasm for the Lord comes from following simple rules. I should like to suggest three.
The first is to read—to read the word of the Lord. I know that with the demands of your studies there is little time to read anything else. But I promise you that if you will read the words of that writing which we call scripture, there will come into your heart an understanding and a warmth that will be pleasing to experience.
The next is to serve—to serve in the work of the Lord. Spiritual strength is like physical strength; it is like the muscle of my arm. It grows only as it is nourished and exercised.
The cause of Christ does not need your doubts; it needs your strength and time and talents; and as you exercise these in service, your faith will grow.
The third is to pray. Speak with your Eternal Father in the name of His Beloved Son.
It is unlikely that you will hear voices from heaven, but there will come a heaven-sent assurance, peaceful and certain.
If you will read the word of the Lord, if you will serve in His cause, if in prayer you will talk with Him, your doubts will leave [and] the witness of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is in very deed the Son of God, born in the flesh, the Redeemer of the world resurrected from the grave [will come]. It is your opportunity so to know. It is your obligation so to find out (from Conference Report, Apr. 1966, 87).
At least we are given three specific rules in this quote, even if they are actually only generic rules, and not specifics at all. For example, the first rule is to read the word of the Lord. The promise is that by reading the scriptures “there will come into your heart an understanding and a warmth that will be pleasing to experience.” What does that even refer to? What does that mean? What are we supposed to be looking for? What are we supposed to expect from our reading of the scriptures? This causes more questions for me than it gives in answers.
The second rule is to serve. How does service create spiritual strength? He is suggesting that serving others nourishes and exercises our spiritual muscles, giving us spiritual strength. But in what way? And how does exercising faith enough to serve others in the cause of serving God create growth in our personal faith? Seeing a pattern here? We are given very generic rules, generic promises, but nothing specific.
The third rule is to pray. Praying to our Heavenly Father in the name of His Beloved Son will bring a “heaven-sent assurance, peaceful and certain.” What does that even mean? What assurance are we going to receive? What peace and certainty are we to expect? What are we even supposed to pray about or for in order to receive these promised results? These kinds of comments from the prophets have always been a source of extreme frustration to me.
If they want to teach us how to increase our personal spirituality then why don’t they just tell us what we are supposed to do? Why don’t they tell us that action A will create result A? This is where I missed the boat. I didn’t understand that spirituality doesn’t work this way. We don’t get anything truly specific until his last paragraph where he promises that if we read, serve, and pray we will receive the testimony of Christ’s divinity, and that he was resurrected. He then tells us that this knowledge is both a privilege and an obligation.
Spirituality is an obligation
Why is becoming spiritually minded, that is, being able to listen to the voice of the Spirit and be led to do those things that please God, an obligation? The answer is bound up in our purpose here in mortality. The reason we don’t remember our life with our Father in Heaven is so that we can exercise faith and belief to learn to follow the Holy Ghost as He teaches us what we need to know and do to become more like God. Mortality is all about character development. We are here to learn to be holy, pure, and godly. To do this we must learn to receive revelation, for all things spiritual are hidden from the mind of mankind, the carnal mind. Spiritual things must be revealed to be had and understood.
Without personal revelation we will never be able to come to understand the nature and character of God. And we will only come to that understanding by becoming like Him ourselves. So spirituality in mortality is an absolute necessity. We are not obligated to become spiritual. But if we refuse to seek greater light and knowledge about God then we also refuse to receive the blessings of the gospel of Christ and the rewards that come from becoming godly. Once we have made even the most basic of all covenants, the baptismal covenants then seeking spirituality becomes an imperative, an obligation. That obligation is built into the covenant to become like Christ, and to represent him at all times, to remember him, and to seek to bless the lives of others. All these things require direction we can only receive from the gift of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghost only communicates with us through personal revelation.
Why so vague?
All godly attributes and character traits that will enable us to come to know God and his perfection require that we experience those attributes and character traits, even if they are not in fully perfected form. This means that for me to comprehend the nature of gratitude and appreciation, I need to exercise faith in Christ, repent of my sins, and work to learn what it means to feel forgiven of my sins, to have the hope of a brighter day, and the joy that only becoming justified with the laws of God can bring. How this happens to me will be different than it will be for you.
This path back to God is strait (narrow), but still very personal. What I need to work on to be forgiven and to change is not the same as any other person on the planet, for my sins are slightly different than your sins. What is required of you to be forgiven will be different than what I need to do to be forgiven. The outcome is the same for both of us, but the process is tailored to our specific needs.
This is why the prophets cannot tell us that any one specific action will produce one specific result. We are all unique in our needs, so though we all need to do the same things, how the plan of salvation reveals itself to us is unique for each person. Using President Hinckley’s three rules, let’s look at each rule again recognizing that these are rules of character development that are unique for each individual who applies them.
Read your scriptures
There are a lot of scriptures to read. Which ones I choose to read first, and whether I choose to just gloss over the words or study their contents like my life depends on it will change what happens to me when I read each day. Do I expect to read for one day and everything in my spiritual world will be different tomorrow? Of course not.
Character traits and attributes are developed over time. As I mentioned at the beginning, spirituality takes lots and lots of time. We only develop attributes and character traits by choosing to work on something in our life that we feel is amiss or has not yet gotten us where we want to be. It could be that we want to have more faith, more kind thoughts about others, or fewer slip ups with persistent sins. Whatever we choose to seek for, we must combine our reading of the scriptures, the word of God, with prayer and action in order to develop or affect the change we seek. That action we perform cannot be self-serving. We must turn our hearts outward to the needs of others through service, through ministering.
In this way, over time, we begin to see what the scriptures mean when they say this or that about who we are, about what the Lord wants us to do, or about how behavior affected the people of God in previous dispensations. Remember, everything, everything, everything, in the gospel of Christ is about changing our natures to become more godly, more like Christ. That takes time and effort, and it is all individual, though the process is the same for everyone.
Service and prayer
What we just learned about reading the scriptures applies equally to our service and our prayers. Service teaches us about God’s love for all his children. Service helps to turn us out of selfish mode and teach us charity, the pure love of Christ. Service shows us in dramatic ways that happiness cannot be obtained through focusing on ourselves, but only when we turn our hearts to ministering to the needs of others. This is how we put into practice all the principles we learn in our scriptures and refine all the attributes we are developing through prayer.
Prayer is the form of communication given to us by our Father in Heaven that allows him to talk to us. I must be the one to approach him. I can’t expect him to approach me. His ability to bless me is based on my desire for those blessings. If he tried to give me blessings when I had no desire for them they would only condemn me in the end, and that would violate my moral agency. So God must sit tight until I want to communicate with him.
Prayer gives us the opportunity to practice (there is that word again) putting faith in what we have read and studied in the scriptures, and what we have learned through our struggles to serve in a Christlike way. We take those challenges and experiences to the Lord and lay them at his feet as we express our gratitude and seek for his guidance. Then, when we have had our say, we listen – meaning we search our feelings – for communication from the Spirit. It is through the Holy Ghost our Father answers our prayers.
Prayer is also one of those vague things. Sometimes our answers are immediate and overpowering. Sometimes the answers we seek come weeks, months, or even years after we have sought the Lord in prayer over that subject. But the answers will always be offered in the Lord’s time, based on his infinite wisdom and love for us. When we learn to trust in our Heavenly Father’s perfect and complete love and devotion for us, we will begin to experience the peace and comfort that comes from prayer. Our spiritual strength will increase as our faith increases. We will learn to have greater patience in his timing and in his desire to bless us.
Rules of Thumb
A rule of thumb is a general rule that we follow unless something specific is needed to solve a problem. Developing spirituality is based on some simple rules that always work, though how they are implemented is completely individual, based on our needs.
- Through simple things are great things brought to pass. President Hinckley told us to read our scriptures, serve/minister to one another, and to pray to our Heavenly Father. When we go to our Father in Heaven in prayer and ask to be directed in our reading, we will begin to receive impressions to choose this book from the Standard Works, or perhaps a different book. But the point is that because we have asked for guidance, gentle nudgings will come to us. When we follow that nudging we will receive more of them in other areas. This is based on the principle that when we seek for more communication with God he will give us more. It is only when we claim we have enough that he takes away that which we already have.This means that when we initiate communication and express a desire to be obedient to what we are able to discern from the Spirit, the Lord will send the Holy Ghost to begin helping us. This is what happens to the investigator when the missionaries promise that if they read with real intent, wanting to know if the Book of Mormon is true then are willing to ask God if it is true, that God will reveal the truth of that book to them through the Holy Ghost. In other words, this process is simple enough for even the uninitiated to follow and find success.
2. Learning to be spiritually minded is not rocket science. When we seek to know then do the basics like studying, serving others (ministering), and praying, the Lord begins the process of helping us understand line upon line, precept on precept. A precept is a teaching. So one piece of doctrine at a time becomes more clear to us as we do these basic things. Over time, and based on the amount of study, service, and prayer we invest in the process, we come to do more than just learn, we come to know things that cannot be known by the carnal mind. We begin to appreciate the tender love and mercy of God. We begin to fathom the love Christ demonstrated for us in his great atoning sacrifice.
Mind you, when these things begin to be revealed to us in little pieces, it won’t be because we specifically asked for each piece. It will come to us because we are doing the basics that develop a godly character and personality. The acquisition of this knowledge is the natural consequence of our more pure and holy lifestyle.
3. Spirituality must be sought after with real intent. A spiritual lifestyle and mindset doesn’t encroach upon us, we must be the ones to seek for it. In seeking to be more spiritual, the basics of spirituality must be met. The basics are make covenants, keep commandments (covenants), pray, serve others, and express gratitude.
Left on our own
I have heard people complain that their Bishop has called them to a position without receiving specific personal revelation for that to happen. They refuse to exercise their faith in the righteousness of their Bishop because they don’t believe he is inspired every single time he makes a move in his calling as Bishop. To these people I lovingly and gently request that you pause and consider your position, since you have put yourself in a dangerous one – position that is.
We are taught that men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause. We should be going about doing much good of our own choice. If God has to tell us every move we have to make before we move our feet, what is the purpose of our agency? Our Father in Heaven expects us to use our own wisdom to develop more wisdom by doing what we believe he would want us to do. Sometimes we make mistakes, but the Lord will never allow us to damn ourselves if we are devoting ourselves to keeping the basics of the gospel alive and well in our life.
When the Bishop calls someone to a position without having received a heavenly manifestation directing him to make that calling, he is just doing what all of us have to do, and that is our best. Remember that being spiritually minded takes practice serving and doing good in as many ways and as often as we can. The Lord called the Bishop to that position, and he will bless anyone who accepts the callings extended from His ordained servant as long as they are exercising faith that they are doing what the Lord would want them to do.
I find it interesting that those who complain that the Bishop is doing things without direct personal revelation first are also doing things in their own life without direct personal revelation. What a double standard.
Be patient with the Brethren. They cannot tell us specifics about how to receive revelation or become attuned to the Holy Ghost. Those things require experience with the Spirit. And experience with the Spirit requires lots and lots of practice on our part. That practice will be in whatever form we personally need in order to learn how to listen to the Holy Ghost’s promptings. He is a God. He knows what he is doing. He will teach each of us in his own way and in his own time. The Holy Ghost loves us every bit as much as Christ and our Father. It is his assignment to guide us back to God. It is his privilege to show us God’s love through the communications he has with us.
The name of the game is practice. First we live what we have learned then when we listen to the Spirit and learn a little more, we live that as well. Step by step the Spirit will lead us up the high road to holiness. But it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen with a checklist. So when the prophet gives us some vague list of behaviors to follow, especially when he attaches promises for those who do as he tells us, latch on to his advice and put it into practice. It may seem confusing at first, but as we seek for clarification the Spirit will show us what we need to do next. In the end we will be on our knees thanking God that he has given us a prophet to teach us and lead the way.