Imagine you’re a teenager. You’re going through an awkward time in your life, wrestling with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Self-confidence is in short supply and you’re social credibility is vitally important to you.
You’re LDS and have been both baptized and confirmed. You’re active in the church community and even hold one of those youth temple recommends. Sure, you screw up sometimes but, overall, you’re doing a pretty good job of following what you’ve been taught.
You’ve chosen to hang out with friends this evening and, over the objection of your parents, you’ve gone with your friends to a party. You told your parents that it’s a clean party, but you know it’s not. The booze will be flowing and marijuana will be plentiful. You know you shouldn’t be there but you don’t want to be a social pariah. As the night rolls on you engage in activity that you know to be a violation of your standards. You drink your first beer and take a drag from your first joint.
The next day, a Sunday, you hear a lesson in Sunday School that describes how parties such as the one you attended drive away the Holy Spirit. The Spirit cannot abide sin so you need to live worthy of the constant companionship of the Spirit. You’re told that, if you engage in activities like you did the previous night, you’re unworthy of the Spirit, causing the Spirit to withdraw. The teacher quotes Elder Bednar, who stressed the importance of being worthy of the Spirit. You feel despondent. You can’t repent and tell your parents. They’ll bring the hammer down on you. Perhaps you won’t be worthy of the Spirit. Perhaps you’re just not worthy at all…
All of us have probably been taught in some way that our actions can offend the Holy Spirit, driving the Spirit away, and that the only way we can remain worthy of the constant companionship of the Spirit is to keep the commandments. In my view, that’s nonsense.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the presence of God on earth and was promised by Jesus to be our teacher and advocate in his absence. Jesus was the distinct revelation of God into the world and the Holy Spirit would be the continuing presence of God among his people, empowering them to function as the embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth. This is why Paul speaks of our bodies being the temples of the Holy Spirit, equating the presence of God in us with the presence of God in his ancient temples:
But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him…Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?
1 Corinthians 6:17,19
Just as the temple was God’s house, evidenced by his presence within it, so we are God’s temple, indicated by his presence within us (e.g., the Holy Spirit).
Gift of the Holy Spirit
John the Baptist spoke of one who would follow him, baptizing with the Holy Spirit rather than the water with which John baptized. All four Gospels provide testimony that, following Jesus’ own baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon him while God proclaimed him as the Son. Paul and early Christians taught that the Holy Spirit’s descent upon Jesus was his anointing – the moment he was revealed as The Anointed One (i.e., Messiah/Christ).
Early Christians taught that the reception of the Holy Spirit served as a similar anointing for believers, and that such an anointing sealed us as God’s children.
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.
But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.
1 Corinthians 1:21-22
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge.
1 John 2:20
As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.
1 John 2:27
The reception of the Holy Spirit, the baptism John the Baptist spoke of, is the Gift of the Holy Spirit. It is that baptism to which Jesus refers when he tells Nicodemus:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
The reception of the Holy Spirit following one’s baptism was the sign that God had accepted that person into the family of God. As Paul mentioned, it is a seal from God; a pledge or covenant of one’s inheritance. It represented the promise from God that one was accepted as was Christ. That is indeed a gift, given by the reception of the Holy Spirit, and is only given by God.
What I’m driving at is the idea promulgated within the LDS Church, that the gift of the Holy Spirit is some sort of special companionship given only to members of the LDS Church, cannot be sustained by teachings in the New Testament. In the LDS Church we’re taught that, following the laying on of hands by some guys with priesthood authority, we now get some special, super companionship and access to God. Not only do the New Testament scriptures teach something different, our lived experience belies the idea as well, for we all know non-Mormons who exhibit the fruits of the Spirit as well as any Mormon does. We know people who have a close relationship with God and are just as in tune with God as is a Mormon. There is no difference and we know it, yet we persist with the teaching that we’ve got some sort of companion who spooks at the slightest sight of sin, abandoning us precisely in the moment when we are most in need of God’s presence.
The Example of Jesus
In fact, the idea that God is some sort of shrinking violet in the face of sin, abandoning sinners in their time of need by withdrawing his presence, is proven false by the example of Jesus Christ, who was God’s presence made flesh. Jesus repeatedly stated that he merely followed the example of the Father:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.
And what did Jesus do? He ate with sinners, hung out with publicans, chose not to accuse an adulterer, touched the unclean, spoke with the impure, and brought faith to those who lacked it. He spent his time with the broken, unclean, sinners in society. On the cross he took God’s presence directly to the most shameful, debased place within the community, and died the death of a traitor and brigand to do so.
The example of Jesus demonstrates that God reaches out to those in need precisely when they are in need, not after they have proven themselves worthy by keeping his commandments. Jesus took God’s presence to the sinner. He didn’t sit back and wait for them to first get their life right before he graced them with his presence.
Changing Our Discourse
I think we do a grave disservice to our youth and anyone else in need of God’s reassurance when we imply that they must be “worthy” of God’s grace and presence. God has proven through the example of Jesus Christ that he is perfectly willing to take his presence to those in need when they need it. He’s no shrinking violet who abandons us in the time of our greatest need. It is through his presence that we are changed. This should be the message we give to our youth and anyone else struggling with feelings of inadequacy before God. God will not abandon them. That promise from him can provide the strength they so desperately need. That is the gift of the Holy Spirit: the knowledge that they are sealed as his by the reception of the Holy Spirit, anointed by God as heirs in his kingdom. That baptism of the Spirit is an empowering sign from God, a token of his covenant grace, and it is truly a gift.