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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Mystery of Conversion

I really debated titling this article "The Miracle of Conversion." The words in this context are interchangable. But I'm not a General Authority. I'm not your bishop. I'm a writer. A storyteller. I really didn't want this blog to read as if it was a talk by a Church leader, even though, I suppose, in the end the objective to inspire, motivate and edify is exactly the same.

The word "mystery" is, admittedly, a more provocative word. But I don't really think it was my intention to provoke. I was more interested in exploring the genuine mysteries--that is, concepts and phenomena not easily expressed in words--that underlie the conversion experience for a Latter-day Saint. Besides, the subject seemed particularly apropos considering that my last blog was on apostacy. Sooooo, I'd like to explore the opposite side of that spectrum. Thank you, D. Atkinson, for inspiring it.

I recall that when I was young--particularly when I was on my mission--I was guilty of over-analyzing and over-defining the conversion experience. (Maybe this article is evidence that such a tendency in me still thrives!) What I mean is, when I was personally converted to the LDS faith it seemed to me a very real, physical and spiritual event. I would concur that even today this phenomena is not really that easy to explain. Nevertheless, I was convinced that anyone who sought to know the Truth (captial "T") of our religion, or of the Book of Mormon, or of any other aspect of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, needed to undergo an experience similar to mine before they could proclaim to have received a "testimony."

In the LDS culture we may have burned out such words as "testimony" and "truth"...just a little. Not because the words are inappropriate or because they fail to accurately express the depth of our convictions. But because they may be perceived by some as cliches. When a word or expression becomes a cliche, it means that it may no longer have the emotional or intellectual impact that it once had. Thus, a saying like "I know the Church is true" is sometimes satirized by people--sometimes even by ourselves! It's certainly not uncommon for an LDS comic to stand behind a podium and (with mock tears) say things like "I know my roommate is true. I know my ipod is true", etc., and we chuckle because we are all-too familiar with the kind of thing he is poking fun at. By the way, this is harmless. I'm not criticizing the need to satire the overtrivialization of such things. However, it may be useful for saints to be aware that using such phrases as "I'd like to bear my testimony," or "I know the Church is true," may not have the same impact on a non-member--or even a fellow Latter-day Saint--as it had twenty-five or thirty years ago. Even we, as saints, often don't mentally "hear" the phrase anymore. It sort of whooshes over our heads; we find ourselves subliminally or unintentionally awaiting the next sentence before our brains "kick in" and we pay attention. (The same may be true of such phrases recited in prayer as "We thank Thee for this day..." or "Bless this food that it may give us nourishment and strength..." or "Bless the instructor that we may take this lesson into our daily lives...") Sometimes these sentences are like "warm-up" phrases for our brains so that we can get the wheels turning and begin expressing what is truly in our hearts. The only time I worry is when a prayer consists of nothing but cliches--no heartfelt sentiments whatsoever. It's important for us to be aware of how these phrases are sometimes received by our listeners. They may not have the intended impact. They aren't really all that different from the memorized liturgies of other Christian denominations. One consequence of this is that the pseudo-intellectuals among us start to think that our convictions and beliefs are not heartfelt, or that we function by rote, or even that our members are brainwashed. (I say pseudo-intellectuals because true intellectuals don't get caught up in such hasty and shallow judgments.)

The fact is that any individual's conversion experience (i.e. their time of personal communion with the Holy Ghost) is a very sacred thing. But not so sacred, I think, that we cannot discuss the nature of the experience in general terms. I have previously written that using words to describe a spiritual event--i.e., an instance wherein we are touched by the Holy Spirit--can be a difficult challenge. Sometimes I think this is on purpose! In other words, expressions that we employ to define the experience may be inadequate to really communicate what those seeking a similar experience should expect. This may serve to compel an individual to seek the experience for themselves rather than rely upon the experience described by others. Or at least I hope this is the result.

A common phrase that is used when describing someone being touched by the Holy Ghost is a "burning in the bosom." This phrase is also scriptural (see D&C 9:8). Others might describe a "tingling sensation" or simply a "warm feeling" that envelops the heart or the entire body. The most common description--and the most poetic--is that of a "still, small voice" (see 1 Kgs 19:12, 1 Ne 17:45). My personal favorites are descriptions like the one found in Doctrine and Covenants 85:6: "Yea, thus saith the still small voice, which whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest..." Also the description in 3 Nephi 11:3, just before the Savior makes his appearance, wherein the people "heard a voice as if it came out of heaven; and they cast their eyes round about, for they understood not the voice which they heard; and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn."

What magnificent descriptions of the Holy Ghost! And yet for some the description is so beautiful and sublime that they are left to wonder if they could ever experience such an event for themselves. Yet I believe this is what a person seeking conversion should expect. A manifestation "by the power of the Holy Ghost (Mor. 10:5)" is precisely what a truth seeker is promised! However, for some people the typical and traditional descriptions may be inadequate. As I said before, the reason that the Holy Ghost is sometimes difficult to describe to another person may be to ultimately prevent us from relying upon the testimony of others. It must be personally experienced. Afterwards a verbal description is no longer necessary. We know what we felt. We know what happened. Nothing can replace it. And few things can convince us that it did not take place. I say "few" things because the Adversary does sometimes attempt to reduce the impact of a spiritual manifestion. He can do this by persuading us to allow a great deal of time to intervene between such experiences. This permits the mind to conjure alternate interpretations for what has taken place. Ebeneezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol offered an alternate interpretation of his vision of Marley's ghost. When the spectre asks, "Why do you doubt your senses?" Scrooge scoffingly replies:

"...a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

Similarly, the Adversary may convince us over time that our own spiritual manifestations were the result of a similar bodily function. We start to wonder if what we experienced came about from over stimulation, or excessive excitement, or even that we wanted the experience to happen so badly that we merely convinced ourselves that it occurred. The Adversary whispers that it was all in our imaginations--just in our heads.

Even other Christian denominations (or agnostic "intellectuals") who see themselves as somehow competing with the LDS faith will sometimes go the great lengths to label an event wherein the Holy Ghost confirms truthfulness (of, say, The Book of Mormon) as a kind of emotional self-delusion. When I was first converted I recall making strides to separate out the "emotion" from the actual "manifestion" of the Holy Ghost. Certainly an emotional reaction is the result of a spiritual manifestion, but it is not the manifestion itself. Intense emotion is understandable! It is extremely humbling to realize that our Heavenly Father--a Being who purportedly oversees billions and billions of souls--would condescend and grant such a miracle to one as seemingly insignificant as ourselves. Who wouldn't react emotionally to such a gift? Who wouldn't offer up tears of gratitude and joy? But the tears do not define the event. I believe it is increasingly important to draw this distinction, particularly since those who seek to tear down or dissect an individual's spiritual manifestion usually try to define it as mere emotion. On occasion they will relegate it to some other physical anomoly resulting from the brain's complex soup of hormones or synaptic impulses. But most commonly they will boil it down to emotion. Such a snake dance of logic is often terribly hypocritical. Of necessity the scoffer must also deny God's ability or willingness to transmit intelligence to His children. They must conjure criteria that defines "good" spiritual feelings and "bad" spiritual feelings. (Remember Glenda from Wizard of Oz? "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?") But such criteria is often so ill-defined that it serves no practical purpose. So, ultimately, they must convince us that there is "no need" to seek spiritual enlightenment about something that "intelligence" can so easily dismiss--as if such criteria ever applied to the search for relgious truth! As if faith was not the primary tool deployed! So in the interest of preserving their own world view, an anti-Mormon must twist and transform spiritual confirmation into emotion or an "undigested bit of beef" in their goal of dissembling someone's burgeoning testimony. They have no alternative. All other options are expended. The transmission of knowledge from the Holy Ghost cannot be defeated any other way. But if the spiritual experience can be boiled down to emotion, the rest is easy. Emotions are unstable. They are immeasurable. They vary from person to person. They are forever the stuff of random stimuli.

However, in my own personal experience, the Holy Ghost cannot be dissected, reduced, or relegated to an alternative phenomenon. I suspect this is the same for most Church members who possess strong and stable testimonies. But for now I will speak only of my own personal experiences.

Over the course of my life I've now enjoyed spiritual communion with the Holy Ghost on more occasions than I could possibly recount. But it is still those original manifestations--the ones that I had prior to my baptism--that I come back to me when I seek to somehow "define" the experience. And it may be that the very, very first experience remains the most profound one of all--at least as far as illustrating the event for others. This may be because I was not expecting it. I was not seeking it. It wouldn't have occurred to me that such an experience was something that could be sought. It just happened.

I was about fifteen years old. I was visiting an old friend of mine from grade school who'd moved to the little town of El Jebel, Colorado. His family was LDS. Their conversion occurred about a year prior to moving away from Cody, Wyoming. During this Colorado visit the local LDS Stake hosted a Youth Conference in Glenwood Springs. The event included a rafting trip, a dance, and many other festivities. But also on the intinerary was a Church meeting called a "fireside." I might have contemplated skipping this event, but everybody else was going, so I reluctantly tagged along. The speaker was a man named Brenton Yorgason. As I said before, I was only fifteen. As an adult I've had many opportunities to meet and associate with Brent and his brother, Blaine, by virtue of the fact that we are LDS authors. But at the time I'd never heard of Brent or his books.

His talk was entertaining enough, as Church talks go. I'd been an active Lutheran for several years in Wyoming and had sometimes heard the heartfelt sermons of my local pastor, Pastor Hermsted. The only immediate difference was that "Brother" Yorgason didn't wear a white collar. I recall that the kids were very anxious to get on with a dance that was scheduled for later that night. There were a number of very attractive females in attendance, so I was no less eager than everybody else. But first we had to listen to this "fireside" speech.

It was during that talk that I felt the Holy Ghost for the first time in my life. It was something that I'd never experienced before. No physical sensation like it had ever occurred in my first 15 years. Now how can I describe it? First I suppose I ought to lay out the context. Brother Yorgason was telling the story of a young boy named Joseph Smith and how, at the age of seven, he had to endure a terrible operation where a diseased piece of bone had to be cut away from his leg. I can't recall if I'd ever heard the name "Joseph Smith" before or not. Perhaps I had. But it had never struck me as a name I ought to remember.

As I listened I felt a warm, tingling sensation. (Yup, my description would be almost the same--and no less inadequate--as descriptions I've since heard from others.) It began in my chest and seemed to spread outward to every limb of my body. My first reaction was surprise. I don't think it was alarm. The feeling was very positive; nothing about it made me feel afraid or apprehensive. Quite the opposite. But beyond the physical part of the experience, a distinct thought entered my mind. I wouldn't describe it as a "Voice," per say. Just a thought. But I was convinced it had come from outside myself. Where else would it have come from? The thought was: Pay attention. This man, Joseph Smith, is important. That's it. That's what I remember. The "burning" feeling lasted for about a minute. I remember I thought I was glowing. I vaguely recall looking around at others and wondering if they were feeling the same thing. It was apparent that no one around me was experiencing exactly what I was experiencing. And then it left. The feeling faded until it had entirely disappeared. I remember the emptiness left behind, and the disappointment. I remember thinking how badly I wanted to feel that feeling again. But since I had no explaination for how it had come about in the first place, I also had no idea how to bring it back.

It was three years before I felt this manifestation again. The next time was during my Freshman year at BYU as I prayed to know if the Book of Mormon was true. Because my memory of what had occurred in Colorado was so vivid it made the recurrence of that feeling all the more profound. Not feeling the Holy Ghost for three years naturally caused me to ponder the event. I started to wonder what the point of it was. Oh, I never doubted that it happened, but I definitely wondered why. I even recall trying to tell my older brother about it shortly after I got home from Colorado. It must've been one of those "you had to be there" things, because I really couldn't describe it in any way that did the experience justice. However, for me personally, the absence of that sensation--that "burning in the bosom"--for three long years may have been part of the Lord's plan for me. He knew that when the feeling returned I would immediately recognize it as an answer to my prayers. More importantly, He knew that I would act upon that answer. Three weeks later, I was baptized.

Because of my own personal conversion I've often tried to help investigators to seek a similar experience before they joined the LDS Church. Over the years, however, I've loosened up on that. The ways and means by which the Spirit manifests itself to individuals seems to be as varied as the number of individuals who are touched. I sense that the physical experiences are similar, but the circumstances have an infinite variety. I have personally known people who can't really name a specific conversion "event." They've simply always known--ever since they were very young children. The cumulation of spiritual experiences in their lives have made their testimonies virtually indestructible. Nevertheless, I still contend that communing with the Holy Ghost is a separate and distinct experience from the emotion that it may subsequently generate. Also, the "feeling" is not the result of any internal physiological or psychological mechanism. It comes from outside ourselves. It comes as a gift from God.

However, just because my conversion experience can be so strikingly defined it does mean that I have any particular advantage as I undergo the line-by-line, precept-by-precept education of the Spirit endured by every Latter-day Saint as far as making day-to-day decisions. I still struggle and concentrate and pray and fast to make sure that I can distinguish spiritual promptings at critical moments. And often I get it wrong, which usually serves to teach me a lesson that I would not have otherwise learned.

When it comes to conversion, it seems to me the most pressing challenge for people--especially LDS youth--is instilling inside them a core desire to even know Truth. How do you teach someone to hunger and thirst after a testimony? I teach Sunday School to 13-year-olds. A couple of weeks ago I asked bluntly if any of them had ever sought to know if the Church was true. I asked if they'd ever gotten down on their knees and requested such knowledge. No hands were raised. None of them had yet felt any pressing need to know.

Like many of us, I live in a fairly affluent area. The kids in my neighborhood live very comfortable lives. They've never known want (unless it was for a cell phone). They've never known hunger or experienced any kind of serious calamity or hardship. I have no doubt in my mind that the Lord "blesses" us with trials when we become too comfortable. Brigham Young once warned the Latter-days that they would shortly become wealthy, but he said that this wealth would be a greater challenge to their spiritual progress than poverty. I often believe I am witnessing a literal fulfillment of that prophecy as I observe some of the youth of this Church--and many older members as well. Maybe your Ward is the same. Maybe it's not. Maybe your experience is entirely different. But I think for many saints, they can relate to what I am describing.

How did we create this scenario? Well, I realize as parents that we want so badly to give our children better lives than what we may have experienced. It's only natural. We deliberately, if unintentionally, spoil our kids. Not because we want to hurt them, but because we love them, and giving to them whatever they ask for (especially if they ask again and again and again) is sometimes our haphazard (and lazy) way of expressing that love. Giving extraordinary gifts and opportunities can sometimes be a matter of personal pride--almost the same game as keeping up with the Joneses. But there is an obvious downside, and I fear that we are now beginning to reap it.

Personally, I am convinced that if the Lord's saints will just internalize gratitude or somehow foster valiance in building His kingdom on our own without having to experience serious trials and calamities, the Lord would not be as inclined to afflict us with such. The Lord wants to protect us. He wants us to be happy and succeed. But success to Him means returning to His presence. And for some reason, as a species, we do not spiritually thrive or excel without earthquakes, floods, famines, war, disease, and a whole range of other serious challenges. It seems that this is a stark reality of our eternal progression. So yes, I believe hurricanes and other disasters are often a direct result of God's love. It would be inaccurate to label such His "punishments." To me it's always sad when I hear somebody conclude that pain and disaster are evidence of God's apathy, or even His non-existence.
Exactly the opposite is true. Somehow the Lord must find a way to turn our hearts back to Him, drive us to our knees, and motivate us to learn the most serious lessons of what it means to be an eternal heir. Also, it is by these methods that the Lord judges the rest of us. Our willingness to sacrifice, to serve our fellow man, particularly in times of trial and disaster is the most basic lesson that Christ taught when He said: "If ye love me, feed my sheep (John 21:16)."

For me, as a teenager, no questions burned more profoundly in my mind than "Where did we come from?" "Why are we here?" and "Where are we going?" Nobody taught me a driving desire to know such things. It was an inborn thing, an integral part of my curious nature. Even Moroni 10:3-5 assumes that a desire to know truth is already in place before a person seeks an answer from the Holy Ghost. And yet I'm well aware (part of me is even shocked) that many people in the world do not share this desire or passion. They don't feel any need to know. Or perhaps they're simply convinced that they cannot know. So why try?

Nevertheless, it is my firm testimony that Truth can be known. To quote that silly show The X-Files: "The Truth is Out There." But not in some secret government lab. I believe God Himself desperately wants us to want to know. But the old addage applies: "You can lead a horse to water, but..." etc., etc.

I pray that for anyone reading this blog, if you have not already experienced the miracle of conversion, that it may become the most driving desire of your life. I am convinced that it is the first step to Godhood. And may all of us, as we seek to nurture this passion in ourselves, also figure out the "mystery" of instilling that passion in others.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

For those who are interested in signed Tennis Shoes and Passage to Zarahemla stuff there are still a few available from Ebay. See: http://shop.ebay.com/liahona10/m.html?_nkw=&_armrs=1&_from=&_ipg=&_trksid=p4340.


  1. Wonderful! You did a really nice job on this. I so identified with the section about needing an earthquake or hurricane before seeking the truth. I was very glad you touched on how we sometimes are classified as "brainwashed" for what we feel. I also enjoyed hearing more about your first time feeling the spirit. When I read where it happened, well, I guess you can figure out why that would capture my attention. And I absolutely loved the "I know my ipod is true!" I'd never heard that, and it was a day-brightener!

  2. Hi Chris! I really enjoy your blog; thanks for all of the thought provoking discussions! As a life long member of the LDS church I really found this particular post rather interesting. I've always wondered what it would be like to have been a convert, in the sense of being taught about the church later in life. As I read I also thought about the different moments in which I have felt the Spirit touch me. I would agree that at times the warm sensation created by the spirit leads to an emotional response. But, as a very passionate and emotion based person, I also think that feeling the spirit is an emotion. God works with science, and so the feelings of the spirit might actually be chemicals rushing into our synapses and adrenaline flowing through our veins. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, I think at times the Holy Ghost tells us he is there by enducing our tears or making our hearts pound in our chest. Just a thought. Thanks again for the great topics and AMAZING books. I am really looking forward to the next tennis shoe book!!
    -Sarah L

  3. It may be correct, tvillegrace, that the "effects" of the Holy Ghost are interconntected with emotion. Feelings in and of themselves all seem to have some kind of physiological "symptoms." But this is still a cause and effect kind of thing. The source is still outside ourselves. And this is an important point that is often criticized or lampooned by anti-Mormons. Yet it is the core of testimony. That is, along with common sense. I've studied out LDS doctrine long enough by now that to deny the common sense and intellectual logic behind it all would be pointless. But maybe that's a male thing. We like logic. :)

  4. Chris, your commenet about hearing someone say "I know the gospel is true" and thinking it is trite reminded me of a letter I received from a missionay who had been helping clean up after Katrina, he made that statement, I sent it on to a few friends and without thinking I sent it to my "born again" friend, I recieved an immediate answer that surely the gospel is true no matter what church, so I have now ammended the way I say it, "I know that we have the complete, or the fullness of the gospel" when you think of it that way it becomes greater than trite, Keep "Thorns" coming anxioius to see it finished.

  5. Chris: This may serve to compel an individual to seek the experience for themselves rather than rely upon the experience described by others.

    Amen. I think there is also another reason. When I was a youth and first trying to gain my own testimony, I'd get confused when people would describe how the Spirit feels (good, warm, happy, etc.) and then caution me not to confuse it with emotions (because they are distinct). But most of the words used to describe it sound like emotions!

    Everyone's descriptions seemed inadequate to fully describe the Spirit, so I didn't think I could ever be completely sure whether I was feeling it. So I promised myself that if I ever did feel the Spirit, indubitably, then I would pay very close attention so that I could describe with sufficient precision that anyone reading the description would be able to recognize it for themselves for sure.

    I think I'd felt the Spirit many times before, but as a youth I finally began to also recognize that I was having them. And so I paid attention and tried to describe it in words. I came up with, "I feel good. I feel warm. I feel happy." I was baffled as to how to describe it any better than the nice-but-lacking descriptions I'd already heard. This frustrated me at first, but then I learned something from it.

    The reason we can't describe the Holy Ghost in words is because the purpose of the Holy Ghost is to tell us things that can't be conveyed in words. If we could describe the Holy Ghost in words, we wouldn't need it. Because there are eternal truths that transcend words, we should expect that the manner of conveying them also transcends words.

    Once I understood that, I stopped trying to describe it perfectly and was content telling people to go find out for themselves.

  6. Very wise and insightful comments. Thanks for everyone's participation. Particularly you, Nathan, for your comments on quite a few of these Frost Cave posts, all in one day, each comment equally intriguing and insightful. You should pursue a blog of your own. I, for one, would be a reader. :)

  7. In my best Goofy imitation: "Gwarsh, thanks!" :) If you're interested, I co-author a blog called LDS Philosopher.

  8. The first few times I can remember feeling the Spirit, I was too young to know what it was or what it meant. I certainly didn't have the vocabulary to even try to explain it. I was in Primary, and I was under the age of seven, because that's when my family moved into the ward I grew up in, and it happened before that. On two separate occasions, in two separate wards, we were learning hymns with the picture boards, and I felt the Spirit really strongly. I remembered the feeling, because I was too young to understand anything except that it was something I'd never felt before. It wasn't until I was older that I realized it for what it really was. The hymns were The Spirit of God and Joseph Smith's First Prayer. The Spirit was telling me, before I was even old enough to understand what it was saying, that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and the Savior in a grove of trees, that he was a prophet of God, and that the true gospel had been restored to the Earth.

    I've felt the Spirit many times since then, in several different ways and degrees of intensity. I'm one of those people you described that's always known the church is true. In fact, when I was praying to get a testimony as a teenager, that's the answer I received: you already know it's true, you've always known that. And when I think about all the times and ways that the Spirit has manifested itself to me, there's no other possible explanation for it.

    I've had critics try to convince me it was all in my head. The clearest example I can remember happened a few years ago. I'd decided to move to London for six months. I'd been there before and I loved it, and it's something I'd always wanted to do. My best friend had just moved there the year before, so I'd already have a friend in the city, and things were working out with school and work so that it'd just be perfect. I started in with the Visa process, and I went over for a quick vacation to visit my friend, and while I was there, I just knew that I shouldn't move there. The Spirit was telling me very firmly not to go. I went to Dublin instead, and had one of the best experiences of my life. When I told this story to some people, they tried to convince it was all cognitive dissonance. I don't believe in CD; I think it's just people refusing to acknowledge the Spirit for what it is and attributing it to themselves instead. I knew what it was, and when I prayed about it and got confirmation, it was crystal clear. I don't know why London was the wrong place for me, but I've never regretted not going. In the end, it doesn't really matter what others say it is, so long as we don't get confused. Our Father speaks to us clearly and frequently, if only we let Him. And I, for one, need it. :)