What is the nature of spiritual experiences, answers to prayer & revelation from ‘God’?
The Mormon Prophet Brigham Young taught:
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”
- Brigham Young, (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe , 135.)
There is a whole world of amazing scientific explanations for the processes involved in “know(ing) by the whispering of the Spirit of God”, but many dare not consider, truly consider, anything outside of their own belief system.
There are beautiful, known, scientific explanations for the mechanisms of the brain which can account for these “whisperings of the Spirit of God”, but some would rather continue to believe in the mystical.
Though scientific understanding is currently a long way from being complete, I think neuro-science will have all the answers eventually.
There is a strong natural tendency to disbelieve any evidence which runs contrary to our beliefs. It is a common problem encountered by every human being who has the ability to think.
Psychologists call it confirmational bias, or observer bias. The bias is only natural. As Professor of Psychology Michael Shermer says,
“the facts of the world are filtered by our brains through the colored lenses of worldviews, paradigms, theories, hypotheses, conjectures, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through living. We then sort through the facts and select those that confirm what we already believe and ignore or rationalize away those that contradict our beliefs.”
It’s an automatic process of our minds. You most probably won’t even be aware of this process of filtering information to fit your belief system, especially if the new information contradicts your current beliefs. Then the cognitive dissonance can make it too painful to consider that you may need to change your mind, so your mind just creates a cognitive blind spot.
The evidence is showing how our sub-conscious minds work, which is very likely where we get this spiritual inspiration from.
The conscious & sub-conscious mind is what our brains do. The mind is a function of the brain.
The sub-conscious mind makes up the vast majority of the function of our brains, with the conscious mind, the self-aware bit of our mind, making up just a small part of it.
The sub-conscious mind is busily working away in the background & occasionally letting our conscious mind know what’s going on. In effect C.C.ing our conscious mind. Saying, “Oh by the way I’ve decided this, or that!”
Scientists have discovered that our sub-conscious mind can have made a decision, or come to a conclusion, some time before we actually realise it.
So the question is, “are we inspiring ourselves?” Or, in other words, “is our sub-conscious mind actually our God??”
The other consideration is how we perceive the conscious physical reality around us. We have to use all sorts of visual, kinaesthetic & auditory assumptions etc about the world at large.
Stage magicians cleverly use these in order to trick our minds. We can inadvertently fool ourselves through these assumptions too. Visual mind tricks are a fun example of how our minds can be easily tricked.
Both sides of the cube are identical in colour & shade, but appear differently to our eyes because our minds make subconscious visual assumptions based on the background
Also, we see the world around us through the filter of bias. We only notice things which we are already aware of, or are thinking about, where our attention is drawn to, a type of confirmational bias.
And, the mind is so powerful we can experience hallucinations in any or all of our senses. Including through self-hypnosis brought on by meditation.
Plus we often subconsciously ignore what doesn’t fit our desires.
All in all, we are psychologically very complex creatures who can be deceived & deluded by any combination of the above factors depending on our state of emotions & state of consciousness.
I’m not an expert, but absolutely fascinated by how I was deceived for so long.
In the gospel sense, if you sincerely pray to God for an answer, you will always get one!
It will never be wrong!
Either: Yes, No or Wait!
So if I pray for a sick relative to live & they do, then God has listened to my prayer, said Yes, & blessed me.
If they die, then God obviously said No, because their must be a higher purpose for them dying.
In other circumstances I may just not get an answer, because ‘the time of isn’t right’, or ‘I need to learn patience.’
Either way, the believer is satisfied! ;-)
As a young missionary I was surprised & disturbed when I met a few very sincere ‘Born Again Christians’ who bore their testimonies with as much, if not more, fervency & genuine sincerity as me.
They were just as sure as me of their personal revelation from ‘God’.
They were absolutely, 100% sure of their belief system.
I rationalised that they obviously were being deceived by half-truths. That the Holy Ghost was witnessing of truths, but that they were conflating error as truth because of the other truths the Holy Ghost was witnessing of at the same time.
But I could never fully understand how they weren’t being led to the whole truth.
It was one of those questions I kept on my proverbial shelf for the ‘God of the Gaps’ to reveal to me one day.
Whilst I was serving as a bishop I was also disturbed by some members who had ‘weird’ testimonies.
How did God inspire those members with bizarre spiritual experiences?
I couldn’t quite reconcile it, other than to think perhaps they were psychologically disturbed, & weren’t understanding or interpreting the Spirit’s inspiration correctly.
Boyd K Packer even finds it difficult to explain how to differentiate between spiritual prompting & emotional feelings! -
“The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary.”
And Joseph Smith at times struggled to know the difference:
According to David Whitmer,
“Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and that they would sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon. Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery went to Toronto on this mission, but they failed entirely to sell the copyright, returning without any money. Joseph was at my father’s house when they returned. I was there also, and am an eye witness to these facts. Jacob Whitmer and John Whitmer were also present when Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery returned from Canada.
“Well, we were all in great trouble; and we asked Joseph how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto and sell the copyright, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking. Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.” So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copyright was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man.”
Some people say they have actually heard an audible voice. I did. I had a very remarkable and memorable experience as a missionary:
“I had been fasting for over 24 hours & focusing on an investigator family with all my ‘heart, might, mind & strength’. Every thought was focused on them getting baptised.
“I had promised in my prayer never to eat again till they committed to baptism!!!!
“During our visit with the investigators I failed to properly challenge them for baptism, so on leaving to walk away I heard a voice!
“The voice was audibly telling me to return and carry out my promised action to challenge them to baptism. No one else heard it. Just me.
“I spooked them big time by telling the investigators my story of the voice.
“They were baptised!”
But then they stopped attending after just two weeks!
Was it an auditory hallucination??
In all probability! After all, I was physically exhausted, thirsty, very hungry and I now realise, susceptible to hallucinations.
What I understand from psychology is that the mind is very capable of playing tricks on us, including creating hallucinations in any of our senses, or any combinations of our senses.
What our minds perceive is, after all, only electrical impulses stimulating certain areas withing the brain. The mind is actually, after all, what the brain does.
Many people experience these auditory hallucinations when suffering with certain psychopathies, like schizophrenia.
A friend who suffers with this says he can actually ‘hear’ my thoughts!!
And he hears many voices!
So, on looking at the evidence I deduce that it is entirely plausible, even probable, that we all get the same subconscious messages occurring, some with strong hallucinatory aspects to them, but we interpret their origins differently depending on our particular belief system or culture.
I have seen things from the perspective of a faithful Church member & leader. I once believed that the “whisperings of the Spirit of God”, were actually from God. I received (what I “knew” at the time was) divine guidance on a daily basis as I served as a Bishop in the Church for almost seven years.
Over the course of my life from age 17 to 46 years old I have personally had the most incredibly intense feelings of confirmation of truth when I prayed about Joseph Smith & the Book of Mormon. I served a mission based on those feelings or “whisperings of the Spirit” and bore powerful testimony to the truthfulness of the gospel as I taught investigators.
I knew how to initiate a ‘divine learning experience’ and was able to go to God in prayer and plead for answers to many questions over my lifetime. Many members and priesthood leaders were astonished at my spirituality. Frequently my Stake President would publicly acknowledge how strongly God’s Spirit was with me, guiding my leadership of the Ward. They all recognised that I was leading the Ward by the power of God and receiving revelations on a frequent basis. The Stake President strongly emphasised on many occasions that the members should consider me like a Prophet to the Ward because of the way God was guiding me.
Those same feelings of inspiration still come to me in exactly the same way now, even though I’m an agnostic atheist.
How does anyone account for that?
What’s even more alarming is that these “whisperings of the spirit” are not always reliable.
I’ve had those same intensely strong feelings of the ‘Spirit’ several times when important decisions needed to be made, where, after following the so-called ‘divine guidance’, the outcome has been dreadfully wrong. At the time I put it down to God wanting me to have a learning experience, because my mind would not accept the blatantly obvious. The “whisperings of the Spirit of God” were in fact generated within my own brain by simple explainable biological processes of my brain.
There most probably is no external divine communication.
The more we understand about the mind, the more we understand about who we are as human beings.
Scientific research has massively increased our understanding of both the world around us & the world inside our heads.
Many faithful, believing Latter-day Saints try to explain away the discrepancies and difficulties surrounding their belief system, but in reality God doesn’t need apologists. What we need is honest, open-minded, authentic people who are willing to consider all the facts without filtering them to fit a particular belief system.
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” ~ George Bernard Shaw