We’ve had a lot of convert baptisms in our ward this year, so that nearly every second Sunday another new person is confirmed during sacrament meeting. I can’t help sitting up a little straighter when I hear those words, “we say unto you, receive the Holy Ghost.” They make me wonder how the Spirit will show itself in the life of this just-baptized person.
Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hinges on this agreement to live in harmony with the Spirit of God. But receiving the Holy Ghost is by no means easy to define. Although we regularly pray for the spirit in public and private, I often question its role in my life. Sometimes the inner answer to those questions is an uncomfortable awareness of my very unspiritual tendencies. Other times I can’t readily remember the Spirit in my life, and I’m left feeling grey and doubtful. I remind myself that spiritual questions rarely have pat answers, and that doubt and belief are two sides of a life of faith, but that doesn’t make those times particularly easy. And then there are the times when I feel deeply certain of God’s hand in my life and in the world, and I feel most truthful when I acknowledge that spiritual presence.
The text for this Sunday School lesson includes verses that promise a world filled with spiritual gifts. The citation of these verses is significant in our church history. Joel 2:28-29 says:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.”
Joel lived some time before the 4th century BC and looked toward a future spiritual fulness of times. His prophecy is quoted verbatim in chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles on the day of Pentecost when the apostles spoke in tongues to a crowd of astonished witnesses. These same verses are also referenced by the angel Moroni who told Joseph Smith that their promise of spiritual blessings would soon be fulfilled (JSH 1:41). It was only after this vision of Moroni that Joseph Smith started translating the Book of Mormon and eventually established the church. In Joel’s vision, spiritual power does not belong just to a tribe of priests or a guild of prophets. The words of these verses are careful to identify different strata of human society, with gifts of the Spirit given to old and young, rich and poor, men and women — a spiritual feast for all walks of life. In our theology, the Spirit has universal access, and in a perfect world, everyone would receive and recognize its power. The church is a foretaste of that ideal world, one in which every confirmed member is promised the companionship of the Holy Ghost if she will receive it.
We don’t live in a perfect world though. In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve are not only thrust out of the Garden of Eden into a world of physical suffering, they are also cut off from direct access to divine knowledge, comfort, and companionship. This is the human plight, to be alienated from the goodness of God, to live with an obscured understanding of deep truths, to live in uncertainty and danger. But Joel’s prophecy gives a glimpse of a society that can bridge the gaps between our imperfect world and God’s world — not a physical change in our circumstances, but a communication of divine understanding and peace. This spiritual power may manifest itself in the visions, dreams, or prophecies described in Joel 2. It may also be manifested as those gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23 “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.”
Sometimes recognizing the spirit is difficult, but as I’ve thought about Joel’s promise, I’ve been reminded of spiritual manifestations in my own life — a variety of religious experience that expands and grows the more I acknowledge and live by it. In my these experiences might not always appear with apocalyptic drama but are nonetheless strengthening and sustaining: These are revelations of love for people who may be difficult or intimidating, visions of how to use talents or resources to serve the world, hopes for the future that push me forward, comfort in dreams or comfort in human companionship, joy in prayer. And I’m grateful for the outpourings of spirit in the lives of other women in my circle and for the fact that they share these experiences with me. I think of a friend who felt prompted to pray with her father before he passed away the next day, another who glimpsed a deeper vision of God’s plan after a devastating miscarriage, and another who was surrounded by the healing care of friends during a debilitating illness. These are the kinds of experiences that fulfill Joel’s prophecy of spiritual outpourings.
Julie Beck said in the October 2008 General Conference, “Without personal revelation, we cannot succeed. If we heed personal revelation, we cannot fail. . . . It was prophesied that in the latter days the Lord would pour out His Spirit upon His handmaids. This will happen as we allow ourselves to be still enough and quiet enough to listen to the voice of the Spirit.” Listening to the words of confirmation to “receive the Holy Ghost,” I can’t know exactly how a new church member will experience the Spirit in her life. But I can know that God has promised to reveal the Spirit to each individual personally, that the Spirit is available to everyone, and that a life of faith is one of learning to recognize that Spirit.