Vulgarity, profanity, immodesty, violence in movies, and being up past midnight are examples of things that we commonly refer to as “offending the spirit.” I don’t disagree, in general, with the badness of the things on this list but I find the word choice to be a bit problematic. The picture it paints in my mind is different than what I think is actually going on. This language has always conjured for me an image of the Holy Ghost standing up and leaving the movie theater in disgust. In fact, I think that is the image that speakers are trying to evoke by using such language. However, I think there is an important problem with that image.
Here’s what I think is actually happening. The spirit interacts with us on a very personal level. When we make efforts to improve ourselves and to do better than we have done previously, we are encouraged by an increase of the spirit. When we sin against what we know is right, the spirit withdraws from us giving us a sense of sadness and remorse that forces us to recognize that what we have done is wrong.
The part that I want to emphasize is the personal nature of the interaction. We all exist at varying levels of moral capability. We cannot become saints in an instant, so as a practical matter, we must work on our defects one by one, so to speak. Small instances of selfishness or pride that would cause remorse and reform in the spiritually advanced go unnoticed by me because I have bigger imperfections to worry about at the moment. The spirit deals with me on a very personal basis. The spirit directs me as to what things I should focus my effort of self-improvement on and they are usually different than the things you should be focusing your efforts on. I am not overwhelmed by my inadequacy because I am made aware of it in bite-sized chunks given in priority order. It is actually important, I believe, for me to remain relatively unaware of various things I must improve until I am ready to focus on them. It is important so that I don’t become overwhelmed and give up. It is important so that I don’t conclude I am currently too sinful to interact with the spirit.
The problem I am worried about stems from our tendency to interpret our own experience as being applicable to everyone, rather than recognizing the fact that it is tailored to our personal situation. This is the problem with talking about the spirit being offended, rather than talking about the spirit teaching us personally. If you feel the spirit leave when you are watching a violent movie, does it mean that the spirit is offended by violence, or does it mean that the spirit is telling you not to watch the movie? Do you see the difference in these conclusions? One interprets the experience as a personal interaction with the spirit who is guiding and teaching you. The other interprets the experience as a lesson about the spirit itself and, therefore, applicable to everyone uniformly.
One of the dangers of turning this kind of personal experience into general counsel is that what we say will not conform to the experience of the people we are talking to. If we tell people they cannot feel the spirit when listening to loud music then we lose credibility with them if they do, in fact, feel the spirit in such a situation. Just because the spirit directs you not to listen to loud music does not mean he has given up on working with the people who listen to “rock” music all day (read in the voice of the preacher from Footloose).
So, I worry when we tell teenagers the spirit cannot dwell in the times and places we should most want them to be seeking the spirit. I worry when we tell people something is important for them to focus on just because the spirit told us it was important to focus on. I worry when we give the impression that the spirit is over-sensitive and easily-offended rather than teaching that the spirit will help to guide and refine us over a lifetime and will always be able to help us know what we should be correcting in ourselves. I worry when we make people think they need to make it to some entry level of righteousness before the spirit can be around them.
By contrast, I loved when President Monson talked about the most important commandment being the one we are personally struggling with. I love when President Eyring tells us to pay attention to the thing the spirit brings to our mind during his talk, noting that it might not even be something he says. I like it when we tell people that no matter where they are in life, all they have to do is make an effort to be better and the Lord will be there to help them.