Where it listeth

I hope you won’t think it too boastful if I tell you that my little ward choir sounded AMAZING on Easter Sunday. They had worked hard, but we are beset with the usual woes of the ward choir: not enough people, untrained voices, a couple of really enthusiastic non-carriers-of-tunes, too many meetings scheduled to conflict with choir practice, etc. Saturday night I was thinking that one of the songs was going to be awful, two merely passable, and that only one of four pieces we were performing had a chance of being actually good. Our warm-up on Sunday morning did nothing to suggest that any revision of that assessment was in order.

And then they were just so good. I did not think or sense that angels were singing with the choir, or that they had been completely transformed; it was a miracle on a more ordinary scale. They suddenly remembered the things we practiced, they looked up for entrances and cut-offs, they did not sing Jeeee-sus with that awful spread-vowel balloon noise, they were in tune. They were just a little better than they really are. Although I don’t understand the mechanism, I feel very clearly that there was divine intervention of some sort, the Spirit bringing things to remembrance, quickening minds, amplifying our meager offering. I have seen this happen often enough to believe that it is real, and not just the wishful thinking of an optimistic amateur choir director.

Still, I can’t predict when it will happen. I’ve had choirs work hard on something well within the scope of their capabilities and had it sound just awful. I’ve worked with choirs to prepare for times when it really MATTERED for them to be good (funerals of musicians, for instance), and had them be just human and barely good enough. And then, times like yesterday, in a congregation where every last person with any aesthetic sense at all is already in the choir, and where there’s a long tradition of, um, struggling choirs, and there’s no reason I can see why the Spirit would have an interest in magnifying our talents, and there it was.

We Mormons tend to speak as though we understand how to work with the Spirit. Sometimes we make lists of the things one has to do to be worthy of His (Her? ask Janice Allred) companionship. One of the (very many) things that made me want to jump out of windows in the MTC was a couplet that everyone was very fond of while I was there, coined by some GA whose name I have, in my great mercy, blotted from memory: “the rules govern the Spirit, and the Spirit governs the work.” I’m fine with the second half of that, but completely befuddled and infuriated by the first–as if humans could actually “govern” a member of the Godhead by obedience to some list of rules about when to go to bed and get up and how many pages of the Book of Mormon to read every day. One of the scriptures I used to quote at people in an attempt to make them stop saying “the rules govern the spirit” was John 3:8: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” I don’t think that scripture unambiguously makes my point, but it does capture my sense that the Spirit is less containable than we want to think. In my own life, I don’t have the sense that the companionship of the Spirit, or even momentary visits, are very directly contingent upon my “righteousness” at any given moment–I’ve been tackled by grace at times when I least deserve it, and left (apparently) alone at moments when I most needed and sought divine guidance. I just can’t find a one-to-one correlation between my behavior and my access to the Spirit.

Is it just me?


  1. Aaron,
    I understand that the skepticism discussed here is fed by our desire to avoid the conclusion that God is arbitrary and capricious, a la the Problem of Evil. My distinction is not as irrelevant as you are reading it. Although it was very late at night and upon re-reading, it looks like I forgot what I was writing about in the middle of it. My apologies.

    Allow me to make the connection to the ‘real’ issue. We began this thread discussing the seemingly arbitrary way the spirit works or doesn’t work in our lives. Thus, some people began to discuss their disbelief in an intervening God because of the seeming arbitrariness of the influence of the spirit. One does not follow from the other.

    The reason I made the ontological distinction is because I don’t think belief in an influential spirit companion logically leads to belief in a capricious God. That conclusion only comes from a misunderstanding of what the Holy Ghost actually does in the world.

    Here’s how the logic of what you are talking about goes:
    1. Assume that the Holy Ghost, and thus God, are causal agents in the world 2. Add some hubris to that with the assumption that humans must have the ability to discern any pattern in God’s actions. 3.Since we are unable to discern a pattern, then we must conclude there is none. 4. Therefore God is capricious.

    People are denying premise one to avoid the conclusion in #4. Ignoring that #2 makes my skin crawl, I’d like to make the point that premise one is in fact, NOT the issue here. You said: “To believe that God helps Wendy’s mother with her every mundane task, but that He doesn’t get around to helping suffering or starving children the world over, is intolerable to many people. “

    Here’s where my distinction comes in. The spirit is not a causal agent in the world. All it does is influence people’s thoughts and emotions if they want it too. God does not help Wendy’s mom as a causal force. The spirit, and thus God, ONLY influences her thoughts and emotions. But she is a free agent and the sole causal force of her own actions. God does not intervene in her life. He may suggest things to her mind which she can choose to act on or ignore.

    There is a big difference in believing in an arbitrary puppet-master God and believing that God through the spirit sometimes tells us things or gives us certain feelings. It is not inconsistent to believe in the latter and deny the former.
    I don’t see the direct implication of an intervening God from the belief in a guiding spirit companion. They are entirely different things, and the discussion above looked to me like the result of equivocating God/Spirit and causal intervention with intentional influence.

    That’s the point I started out trying make last night. Sorry I flaked out in the middle. Thanks for the challenge, :)

  2. Kristine says:

    Aaron, your sarcasm meter must be out of whack–you hardly strike me as a Green!

  3. AB, if I didn’t already know Wendy, that might be convincing, given your “poses” elsewhere in the bloggernacle.

  4. At a multi-zone conference on my mission one of the APs gave a talk about obedience in which he turned the scripture “I the Lord am bound….” into a kind of imperative slogan: BIND THE LORD. Sadly, the catch phrase kind of took off among the missionaries, and was repeated in other meetings, taped to apartment walls, etc. I was so bugged by it–the switching of the tense from passive to active, and the switching of control from Diety to Subject had a creepy, creepy ring to it (you know, like the scene in My Turn on Earth where Lucifer sings “Follow Me”; I think there might be a scriptural passage along those lines somewhere too). It totally sapped the kind of humility and feeling of dependency that, at least for me, has been a precondition for spiritual guidance–not to mention presuming to mechanize the flow of things spiritual.

    Luckily, our wise mission president quashed the trend.

  5. D. Fletcher says:

    Beautiful post, Mathew, and I agree. I don’t think there is a pattern, but maybe I just can’t recognize one. In Kristine’s case, I think it might be harmful if she placed too much emphasis on Spiritual manifestation, and not enough on her own gifts of communication and resonance.

  6. Can I just say that it is really, really weird to have people telling *me* that I should be more skeptical about divine/Spiritual intervention?! I love it.

  7. D.,

    I am glad that you disagree. And I’m also glad that you brought up the bad things happening to good people concept, because it’s been lurking behind this whole thread.

    Perhaps we can harmonize our perspectives by allowing for a role for the Spirit once certain minimal thresholds of ‘reaching out’ are met. That is, that the Spirit need not be responding to a particular inquiry or line of need, but can give particularized help in response to generalized searchings. Thus, a person who is “praying always” will be entitled to have the Holy Ghost as a constant companion, and be guided to do things, even though she may not be praying on that particular topic.

    Whaddya think? Too easy a reconciliation?

  8. Kristine says:

    Dave, have you ever seen Garrison Keillor’s prayer for the stoning of the organist? I’ll have to dig it up.

  9. Do I have to be invited to this site?

  10. getting back to the topic at hand — D. you said “I don’t think there’s an active component to the Spirit’s behavior.”

    Clearly that’s fine within the context of this discussion — but I don’t agree with your statement as a general notion. There are definitely experiences of inspiration given without active roles on our part. Take for example the cliche of the “warning” given to members — we don’t dispute that these warnings are given by the Spirit, yet they are unsolicited.

    By and large I agree with you — the Spirit magnifies our efforts and works from within — but there is also an elusive component to the Spirit that can (albeit rarely) work without our help.

  11. I didn’t want to “out” myself so soon here, but let me just say that I am most definitely NOT a democrat. More than that, I’m not going to say…. (mwa-ha-ha-ha…).

    Aaron B

  12. I don’t believe in an arbitrary and capricious God and one of the things that has always appealed to me about Mormonism vis-a-vis certain other forms of Christianity is the ability we have to influence our salvation. That said, I personally don’t see any rhyme or reason to divine intervention when it takes a form any stronger than the general assurance that one is living her life in accordance with God’s will. Fortunately this–what is probably the most common form of divine intervention–is also the most useful. Beyond this I can not make out a pattern with any predictive quality–although I believe that it must exist.

  13. Kristine says:

    I don’t know. I usually favor naturalistic/humanist explanations, too. And I don’t like a micromanaging God, either, which is part of what makes me skeptical about people who feel directed at every turn by the Spirit, but I’m not quite ready to believe that this was a merely human accomplishment. (Though I’m also not willing to entirely discard the possibility, and I am a darn good director, if I do say so myself :))

    Jeremy–this is truly horrifying: a few weeks ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to play a tape of “Follow Me” for PRIMARY SHARING TIME. I couldn’t figure out what to do, so I started surreptitiously tickling the Sunbeams seated in front of me until they created such a disturbance that the tape got turned off. They got a totally undeserved reverence lecture, but that was better than listening to something so confusing and creepy. Sheesh!

  14. Kristine says:

    I have no response to that.

  15. I hear you Wendy about the delusional aspect, and I don’t want to come off as crazy. But there is definitely room in our scriptures for some unprompted inspiration. I personally think it to be a rare thing, and for the most part feel the influence of the Spirit in conjunction with my own actions as described above. But I can’t exclude God’s intervention altogether, for that matter.

  16. D. Fletcher says:

    I’m not suggesting that the Spirit stands by passively and allows us to make imbeciles of ourselves at every turn. But I don’t think there’s an active component to the Spirit’s behavior, either. I think the Spirit, such as it can be defined, works from within, complementing our heart’s own desires for furthering the work and the message. The Spirit may be impotent for actively fixing a bad, improperly prepared Choir sound. But your own good will, mixed up with some real skills, combined with a spiritual endowment, makes you communicate more effectively to a group of people, and helps their ears to understand your communication, and their voices to communicate it further to the congregation, making you the conduit.

    And besides, in my experience, the performance in Sacrament Meeting is always better than the rehearsal. People are more focussed.

  17. I’m with Kristine, D. Fletcher and Mathew on the question of God playing micro-manager. The best solution to the “problem of evil,” IMO, is to construe God as a largely non-intervening deity. However, I suppose there’s reams of Church authority citations one could throw at me in rebuttal. So be it.

    Aaron B

  18. D. Fletcher says:

    I’ve been going through the blogs, trying to find threads appropriate for inserting some advertising. This blog was the hardest one! don’t know why.

    Anyway, since I loved Kristine’s initial post here in this thread, and it was the first thread I responded to here, I’ll stick my advertising in this thread.

    For the last year, I have been working on a project called Mormoniana. It’s a book/compendium of music pieces for piano, plus art prints. Each of 16 LDS composers chose a visual art work by an LDS artist to inspire a new music composition. I’m one of the 16 composers, and I also did a lot of the computer notation (and edited the others).

    The books contain the full music scores, a beautiful essay, signed artwork by Valerie Atkisson, and prints of the various art pieces used. And there is a CD with all the piano works recorded by Grant Johannesen. The books have embroidered covers and were hand-bound by Glen Nelson. For musicians and collectors, I think it’s a very worthy purchase.

    Here’s the website:


    Thanks for listening.

  19. It’s equally weird that I would be the voice of “normality”.

  20. Kristine says:

    It’s OK, Aaron; I think everybody’s alright with the Green Party, too.

    mwa-ha-ha-ha yourself!

  21. Jen,

    I appreciate the ontological distinction you’re drawing between God and the Spirit, but I think it’s completely beside the point. The thrust of the skepticism in this thread over God’s intervention in day-to-day human affairs doesn’t have anything to do with the mechanism (i.e. the Spirit) by which God does or doesn’t intervene. Rather, it stems from the classic “problem of evil” that has plagued Christianity for so long. To believe that God helps Wendy’s mother with her every mundane task, but that He doesn’t get around to helping suffering or starving children the world over, is intolerable to many people. One way of dealing with this is to posit that God does not, in fact, intervene very often in human affairs. In viewing Deity’s relationship to man in this way, one is able to avoid the unsavory conclusions one might draw about God’s “arbitrary” and “capricious” decisions (to use Mat’s terms). Whether you agree with this response to the problem or not, this IS the dilemma that is animating this thread, rather than the issues you raised.

    Aaron B

  22. Kristine and Steve,

    Confession time: Wendy, Ann and I actually work for the Strenthening Church Members Committee and we’ve been assigned to the Bloggernacle to bring wayward members back to the fold. By feigning gay, feminist or “so-called intellectual” poses, we are giving you opportunities to defend the spirituality of Mormonism from hypothetical Godless heathens. Someday you’ll look back on our services and thank us. In the meantime, come back to the fold, Steve and Kristine! It’s not too late for you!!!

    Aaron B

  23. D. Fletcher says:

    Kristine, give yourself some credit. Your choir sounded good because you coaxed it out of them, and they rose to the occasion. The words and music together may have represented a spiritual experience for you, even an epiphany, but it could have gone the other way entirely. I personally don’t believe the Spirit chooses some occasions to endow, over other occasions. The Spirit works through you, and perhaps you wanted it this time more than at other times. Whatever the truth of your heart, you are responsible for the miracle, not some abstract celestial blessing.

  24. Mat — My mother believes that God guides her hand to open to certain pages in books, that God tells her to call certain people on the telephone at certain times, and that God even talks to her — for example, telling her where in the geneological library to look for that name she’s been searching for all day. Is she delusional, or super-spiritual? Or both? I definitely think it’s delusion, for a variety of reasons not worth going into. But many other people in the church — especially women, in my experience — believe that God is following them around all day. Based on my own experiences and for the intellectual reasons that you did, I believed in the non-intervening God for a long time.

  25. Mat’s been saving that one up for awhile, I think :)

  26. My experience hearing the current ward choir suggests you were the recipient of a truly rare grant of the musicial Spirit. My present ward choir teaches me that God is either tone deaf or possessed of more charity than I had heretofore imagined. When they sing, I say something like a silent prayer for mercy (there must be a good Catholic prayer for this kind of thing). Surprise benefit: By segregating the choir to the front seats, the congregation sounds better.

    In fairness, we’ve had some fine non-choir musical numbers. Patient angels hear something nice if they stick around long enough. I guess I’d rather see my choir bomb than one of the youth soloists (especially mine).

  27. No-b,

    No you don’t.

    Alternatively, Yes you do, and consider yourself invited!

    Aaron B

  28. no-b, I think you can tell from our somewhat irreverent treatment of W that we have general scorn for all things establishment around here.

  29. Kristine says:

    no-b, the George W. Bush thing is just a joke. We haven’t really taken a poll, but I’m guessing we might have the highest concentration of Mormon democrats around. (all 7 of us are here…)

  30. Oh, I see I am getting through. I’d love to talk about music, but since I’ve never seen this place before and I find it interesting and I can’t figure out how to post anything anywhere else, I’d just like to ask…..
    Is this a GWBush promotional site?
    If not, then why is his website listed under the political sites when the same courtesy isn’t extended to the Demos?

    Furthermore, where would I go to ask a question like this?

  31. Pardon me for intruding and returning to the previous subject. :) Something Wendy said struck me as telling, she said: Many members…..believe that God is following them around all day.”
    She and others spoke against that idea. It seems ridiculous that God would be mixed up in everyone’s affairs all the time.

    GOD isn’t following people around all day. The SPIRIT may, on the other hand, be doing just that for those who desire it and pray for it and look for it.
    What we sometimes forget [or maybe just disagree with] is that the Holy Ghost is a distinct entity from God the Father and Christ the Son (according to LDS doctrine). As an unembodied being, the Holy Ghost has the task of enlightening our minds, guiding us to truth, comforting our hearts, and at times communicating God’s will to us.

    Jesus told his disciple’s before He ascended that he was not leaving them alone, that the Holy Ghost will be with them to comfort them etc., etc. The ‘spirit’ that we so often speak of is the Holy Ghost not God nor Christ.

    Our skepticism may come from the equivocation of ‘Spirit’ and ‘God’.
    Isn’t it more plausible to believe that a spirit with no material bounds and no other responsibilities could follow us around as we go about our mundane lives, touching our hearts and our minds when needed and/or desired?

  32. Speak for yourself, Kristine. I’m voting for LaRouche.

  33. D. Fletcher says:


    I disagree, obviously. Why would the Spirit choose to warn in certain instances, and not in others? This brings up the whole topic of “when bad things happen to good people.”

    I like Kristine’s term of “micro-management.” I don’t think God is a micro-manager at all, and in fact, I think He is bound from action by our free-agency. I we believed that He would always help us out (if we are obeying the commandments to the T — easier said than done, apparently) then nothing would ever go right because we would rely on divine intervention far too often. Mostly, we have to rely on ourselves, our brains, our skills, and we call on the Spirit to help us do our job as effectively as possible, and in this way, the Spirit helps us.

    Because we have called Him to the task. I believe this is always the case.

    If someone has some internal anxiety about an event, and they receive a “warning,” they have called and the Spirit has responded.

    I do think God/Holy Ghost has the power to actively guide our lives, but at a huge effort on their part, which is why it doesn’t happen very often. Like, almost never. Like, only to Joseph Smith maybe once.

    The rule of free agency binds God. As we fall into sin, or as our car veers off the road when we are nodding off at the wheel, God weeps for us, recognizing the tragedy He wasn’t able to prevent.

  34. D. Fletcher says:

    This thread got really whacky.

    I myself have no affiliation, except to the Gods of Home Theater.

  35. Wrong again, Kristine. (mwa-ha-ha-ha).

    Aaron B

  36. You know, I often have a profound spiritual experience right when I think I “deserve” it the least, due to bad behavior or disobedience. I think it is a loving God’s way of helping me through it- helping me find the strength to obey. But I definitely don’t think that the manifestations of the Spirit to me have been directly proportional to my obedience.

    Though I do think that my attitude is somehow correlated. When I have a really bad attitude- argumentative, etc., I find that I don’t ever feel the influence of the spirit until I humble myself and apologize/calm down. But maybe that is more because I drive the spirit away, not because I “deserve” to have him back.

    Good post, Kristine!