“Offend the Spirit” — Poor Choice of Words?

October 21, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 12:10 pm   Category: Uncategorized

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.


  1. Jacob,
    Fantastic post. Thank you. Amen to all of it.

    Comment by Rusty — October 21, 2007 @ 12:36 pm

  2. You are such a Liahona Mormon, Jacob! :)

    Seriously, the thrust of the argument is correct. I live in Provo and I once asked a missionary how it is working in Provo with our over-allotment of pharisees. He said that they have a saying in this mission, “Every member a mission president.”

    Comment by Kent — October 21, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

  3. Thanks Rusty.

    Kent, it’s a fair cop, I am a Liahona Mormon.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 21, 2007 @ 5:25 pm

  4. Nice write-up Jacob. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 21, 2007 @ 7:13 pm

  5. Great post Jacob!

    My experience suggests that the Spirit never actually “flees” instead, we withdraw from him. He is there for us whenever we engage Him humbly.

    To your point, He tolerated my swearing, pornography, beer & coffee drinking as he patiently lead me back to the church.

    Comment by Howard — October 21, 2007 @ 9:19 pm

  6. This is a very encouraging and uplifting post. Thank you.
    Jacob, I’m just wondering, do these thoughts have any scriptural or doctrinal basis?

    Comment by BiV — October 21, 2007 @ 10:52 pm

  7. *snicker* Footloose, oh the memories. What, no song to go along with the blog? I can just hear the preacher starting to talk and the background of a “rock” beat getting louder and louder.

    Very nice post. I really love the idea of this and it flies in the face of so much of what we hear at church. Everyone seems sure that if the spirit is telling them something, it must also be telling you the same thing, but really, “overwhelming” is the only way to describe how that would be.

    I think this is just another one of Satan’s ploys to get us to judge one another and think ourselves better than each other. Stall us out on that whole, “loving our neighbor as ourselves thing”.

    Stupid Satan. *kicks Satan*

    Wait, am I allowed to kick Satan here? (If he’s actually one person, that is.) :)

    Comment by Rachel — October 22, 2007 @ 8:25 am

  8. 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 recall hearing that (though not from him) for the first time tens years ago at the MTC. At the time I thought, “huh.” A few days later while sitting in class, I received some distinct impressions that had nothing to do with the grammar lesson going on; it was the coolest experience I had at the MTC as it was the first time I could distinctly put my finger on “feeling the spirit.”

    I’ve heard the same idea repeated since and think it’s right on.

    Comment by Peter LLC — October 22, 2007 @ 9:30 am

  9. In some situations, is it not safe to say that our experience is applicable to atleast the vast majority, if not everyone?

    Just because the spirit told nephi it was okay to kill someone doesn’t mean I should approve of everyone else killing people… etc. etc.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 22, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  10. My personal favorite was when I would hear youth leaders telling us that the spirit goes to bed at midnight, to which I would reply, “But God never sleeps nor slumbers!” They didn’t like that reply.

    Comment by Jacob M — October 22, 2007 @ 10:20 am

  11. Thanks for all the complimentary comments and personal examples of this principle in action.


    I arrived at this opinion through the sorts of considerations described in the post rather than from the scriptures. I’d be interested if anyone has ideas of where we can find scriptural support (or disagreement) with my point. The first thing that came to mind for me was:

    Therefore, what I say unto one I say unto all (D&C 82:5; 93:49).


    Curses. Why don’t I own the Footloose soundtrack. There is no rational explanation.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 22, 2007 @ 10:33 am

  12. “The part that I want to emphasize is the personal nature of the interaction…The spirit deals with me on a very personal basis.”

    People report different sensations while experiencing the Spirit. For instance, I experience an energy running that runs up my spine sometimes to the crown of my head “Kundalini” style. My son has a similar sensation but running down the spine. I wonder how varied this is.

    “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.”

    Our stake president asked us to take notes during talks and promises us that the Spirit will speak to us through these notes. My notes rarely convey the talk content but by jotting down only prompted phrases, they regularly convey current useful information about my life. Try it!

    Comment by Howard — October 22, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  13. Vulgarity, profanity, immodesty, violence in movies, and being up past midnight are examples of things that we commonly refer to as “offending the spirit.”

    Violence in movies? Being up past midnight? Are those really in the top 5 of things that offend the spirit?

    Comment by MCQ — October 22, 2007 @ 5:03 pm

  14. And does New Year’s Rockin’ Eve get an exception from the Spirit?

    Comment by MCQ — October 22, 2007 @ 5:06 pm

  15. MCQ,

    Give me your top five. Being up past midnight is, of course, a tongue in cheek reference to the common joke about the Holy Ghost going to bed at midnight which parents tell their teenagers. I stand by “violence in movies” as a real one though.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 22, 2007 @ 6:17 pm

  16. Once while I was at the Y we had a very sanctimonious Sunday school lesson about everything we were doing that offends the spirit. Later that afternoon some friends and I had a contest where we all tried to best each other making the most ridiculously absurd sanctimonious statement. The winner was “I watched Friends once, and not only did it offend the spirit, it gave him the finger and told him not to come back.”

    I’ve always been a little weirded out by the notion that this or that thing “offends the spirit.” The image seems more befitting of a gossipy old lady. How does the idea of the offended spirit getting up and walking out in a huff square with Elder Bednar’s idea that it’s your own fault if you get offended?

    Same thing about the spirit going to bed at midnight. No way the spirit is that square.

    14: No, Rocking Eve does not get an exception because Dick Clark has obviously made some kind of pact with the devil which keeps him from aging. Either that, or he is a robot.

    Comment by JKC — October 23, 2007 @ 5:34 am

  17. I’ve had spiritual experiences and felt the Spirit in circumstances that many church members would feel to be impossible. For that reason, I tend not to share them very often. But to me, they sit snugly around my testimony, and I feel it again and again as I remember them.


    Comment by Mark Hansen — October 23, 2007 @ 8:43 pm