Friday, January 2, 2009

Discernment and the Ministering of Angels: A Response

Note: My buddy Adam posted some thoughts on December 16 that I'm just now getting around to reading. I started to respond in his comments box, but since I'm so full of hot air, my response got longer and longer. So I'm posting it here instead.

I would suggest reading his post first before reading mine. That will place my thoughts in their proper context.

* * * *

My second mission president taught me that we, as Latter-day Saints, don't focus as much as we should on developing the gift of discernment. Since then, I've consciously tried to focus on what discernment means in this spiritual context. I think it begins, as Mormon teaches, with a knowledge of the light of Christ because this universal gift allows everyone who tunes into it to discern the difference between the forces of light and darkness, good and evil. In the same sermon, he adds to the light of Christ the ministering of angels, a gift also given to men and women from the beginning as a means to help them increase their faith in Christ. This relationship becomes reciprocal, as he says later, because these angels only "show[... or reveal] themselves unto them of strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness." In other words, once once these angels or ministering spirits have spoken the "words of Christ" to us through "the power of Holy Ghost," whispering them in our ears, as it were, we can begin to exercise greater faith until the time comes when they reveal themselves unto those with strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness.

Yet, such a revelation, as Elder Oaks suggests here and as Elder Holland suggests here is not always a visual manifestation of the kind mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 129. These grand keys, as Adam mentions, give us the means to empirically discern whether or not a personage is resurrected--and thus a body of flesh and bone--or still a spirit.

As Adam also alludes to, there is a way (perhaps more powerful than a physical manifestation) to spiritually discern the difference between angels that may appear to us and, what's more, to sense the presence of unseen hosts, whether good or bad. In his outline of the gifts of the spirit, Moroni says that it's given to some to behold angels and ministering spirits and, in the Doctrine and Covenants,the Lord extends this gift beyond visual manifestations to spiritual discernment (something that would have been helpful had the early Latter-day Saints applied it in this situation).

Once we understand this and approach the ordinances and covenants of the Gospel (especially the sacrament) from this perspective, we can become like Nephi, the brother of Timothy, whose faith was so great "that angels did minister unto him daily." Since developing this view of angels and ministering spirits, I can't feel the Holy Ghost without sensing the presence of multiple beings surrounding me, buoying me up (as here, though minus the horses and chariots).

I felt this most poignantly for the first time in the mission field when my zone was giving an elder a blessing after he'd learned that his father had unexpectedly passed away. As I started the blessing, I felt a presence beside me and noticed that the words were coming to my mind as if from this elder's father, who had, I'm convinced, been allowed to join the circle as a way to comfort and reassure his missionary son. Since then, I've never doubted the presence of angels in my life and I've been a fierce advocate (when the opportunity arises) for the development of discernment as a means to attune ourselves to the ministry of angels.


  1. Thanks for the response, Tyler, even if the venue did (appropriately) change. I love your comment:

    "As Adam also alludes to, there is a way (perhaps more powerful than a physical manifestation) to spiritually discern the difference between angels that may appear to us and, what's more, to sense the presence of unseen hosts, whether good or bad."

    I've also had experiences that make me want to pursue this. As a missionary, I was blessed with the ability to discern the presence of unholy spirits, even from a great way off (this frequently came in handy in some of the wilderness areas I served in) and I've also had some moments similar to the one you describe with the blessing, but not necessarily related to ordinances every time.

    Incidentally, I would never make such comments here were it not for the tone you have set on your blog of reverence and thoughtful respect.

  2. .

    Tyler ---

    I agree we need to think more about discernment. Myself, I think "about" it a lot, but that's about it. I need to actively work on cultivating it. And if you don't mind me dropping a link, I've been thinking about angels too. Let's let God out of that box.

  3. Adam:

    I'm glad you feel like you can talk about such spiritually intimate things here. It's good to have someone to chat with them about. Thanks for the inspiration.


    I noticed earlier today that you've been thinking angels. Perhaps our inspiration comes from a mutual source...

    Whatever the case, I agree that thinking is only half the battle, although in terms of faith and discernment, it's a very important part. Developing faith, accepting the gift of discernment, and establishing a closeness with angels (which requires that we consciously accept and affirm their presence) means developing the "firm mind" Mormon speaks of, a manner of thinking cultivated, as you suggest, through active and consistent service to God, someone who requires the heart and a willing mind of his disciples.

    I fear the place wherein many saints fail, however, is by neglecting the thinking part of this equation, privileging physical force (or bodily presence, labor, and institutional programs) over mental exertion. Joseph Smith and associates suggest otherwise in The Lectures on Faith (Lecture 7.3). And Bruce Hafen suggests in The Believing Heart, that many in the Church serve God with their hearts and many with their minds; very few serve him with both. Since reading these thoughts, I've tried very hard to cultivate power in word and deed, to serve God with mind and heart, knowing that any failure on my part to use the faculties God has given me (heart, might, mind, and strength) represents a failure of my faith.

    Sometimes I succeed and sense the gap closing between God and me; sometimes I fail and feel the opposite happening. Either way, like you, I'm trying to think and serve outside of my own box (reversing your analogy here, because I don't think God's the one boxed in) in ways that move myself and others toward greater faith in Christ.

    (Forgive me if I've gone off on a tangent. Your thoughts sparked some things in me that I had to pursue.)

  4. .

    Well, like you said, "in terms of faith and discernment, [thinking]'s a very important part." I hadn't heard that Hafen quote before but it makes me stand accused.

  5. I first read the book quite a few years ago and this quote especially struck a chord with me, especially since I'd become so enamored of Neal A. Maxwell's intellectual discipleship on my mission in New Zealand where the Polynesians also taught me a lot about serving out of love and compassion.

    I guess it was the time for me to learn that lesson: serving with mind and heart aren't mutually exclusive enterprises.