Neal A. Maxwell gave an interesting talk about some very basic faith-strengthening actions. In that talk he develops a well-known scriptural metaphor, which has caused me to reflect more on how the simple actions he mentions correspond to things we must do regularly in order to keep our physical bodies healthy.
...it is fitting to focus prescriptively on the few in the Church who remain spiritually undernourished, including those who have grown weary and fainted in their minds. (See Heb. 12:3.)
...Whatever the preceding causes, any fainting in our minds brings a loss of spiritual consciousness...
...We are to pray always so that we will not faint, so that our performance will actually be for the welfare of our souls, which is so much more than just going through the motions. (See 2 Ne. 32:5, 9; D&C 75:11; D&C 88:126.)
I had never considered that a failure to pray would be to our spirit as a failure to breathe would be to our bodies. Indeed both result in a corresponding unconsciousness and can, without a prompt reversal of the situation, induce a coma, or even death.
In my own life I can only think of one time that I completely fainted. At that time I was 13 or 14. Looking back on the experience reveals how I was exposed to stimulus that my mind and body simply couldn't cope with. I experienced fear, nausea, light-headedness, and my vision receded while I attempted to find a place to sit. Unfortunately, my lack of clear vision caused a painful collision with a nearby wall after which I collapsed.
Fortunately I was caught before I hit the floor by a nearby adult who sensed that something wasn't right and came to help. I woke up a few seconds (or minutes?) later feeling disoriented and dazed, with little desire to be at school among my peers who had witnessed to whole ordeal, but grateful that the experience had passed and that I had been looked after by caring adults. To the credit of my classmates, I never recall being mocked or singled out because of my weakness that day--an unexpected example of young people acting with sensitivity.
This experience isn't far off from what happens spiritually when we experience something that is beyond our ability to cope with. While unpleasant and painful we can recover, especially when those around us are helpful, non-judgemental.
I like to think that prayer is to our spirit what respiration is to our body. Avoiding spiritual death will require our prayers to be like our breathing--regular, frequent, and deep. How often are we 'unconscious' to the influence of the Holy Ghost because we've been holding our breath? Perhaps more commonly we suffer from a sort of spiritual altitude sickness becuase we are not grounded in the gospel, anchored to our Heavenly Father in frequent, fervant prayer.
Elder Maxwell also lists study (and I assume he especially means the study of the scriptures and words of the prophets) as a means to strengthen our faith. The scriptures suggest that studying the scriptures is to our spirits what eating is to our bodies. The scriptures are savory spiritual sustenance. Failure to regularly study them would be spiritually emaciating.
So, have we outlined a healthy spiritual diet? As eating is also a social experience, do we regularly take advantage of (or plan) opportunities to study the gospel with others in our family, neighborhood and ward?
Just as we can't just sit around breathing and eating in the physical sense, we need activity and exercise for our spirit. Service and attending church meetings will supply just such rigor for our developing spirit. It is when we are up and doing our father's business that we feel most whole, most useful as instruments in the hands of God.
Of course, it would be foolish punishment to exercise without the necessary sustenance our body needs--likewise, we probably won't enjoy our meetings or even think of ways to serve if our spirit is malnourished or asphyxiated. We might be consumed by questions such as "Why won't they turn on the air conditioning?" and "When are refreshments served?" rather than the topics being discussed.
When we recognize symptoms of a serious illness or just want to make sure our body is healthy we visit medical professionals for exams and checkups. Such is even true of our mental health, even though we don't often acknowledge such needs as quickly. There is a parallel situation for our spiritual health--auxilleary and priesthood leaders have been called to help us look after our spiritual health and prescribe treatments when something is amiss. The medicine rarely tastes good at the time, but its effect is noticable. Sometimes a visit to the emergency room is unavoidable, along with a lengthy hospital stay. Again, Elder Maxwell paints a very realistic picture:
Real faith, however, is required to endure this necessary but painful developmental process. As things unfold, sometimes in full view, let us be merciful with each other. We certainly do not criticize hospital patients amid intensive care for looking pale and preoccupied. Why then those recovering from surgery on their souls? No need for us to stare; those stitches will finally come out. And in this hospital, too, it is important for everyone to remember that the hospital chart is not the patient. Extending our mercy to someone need not wait upon our full understanding of their challenges! Empathy may not be appreciated or reciprocated, but empathy is never wasted.
So, we need to visit those that are sick, but not "stare" or infer too much from a person's past. We are not qualified to make an objected judgement anyway.
How often do we hear of sports teams "going back to basics", or focusing on executing a simple game plan rather than relying on the raw skill of each team member? A serious athlete is in the gym every day, building strength and endurance. They attend every practive, building trust and teamwork. Consistency is the key to it all.
As a music teacher I lamented how casually and inconsistently some of the brightest and most talented approached their study. It was the "underwhelming" minority that regularly practiced on their instrument outside of classtime.
What percentage of our Elders Quorum or our Ward "practices" the fundamentals of spiritual health every day? Do we consistently use our agency to develop our spiritual strength, our connection with God? Doing so is the epitome of exercising faith.
A high-council speaker in our stake recently cited experts in the field of self-help who stated that the change of anyone bringing about personal change must be able to answer two questions affirmatively related to their proposed change:
So, if we recogize that we need to do better caring for our spirit by returning to the fundamentals mentioned here, can we answer those two questions affirmatively, and without reservation?
Is regular, fervant prayer worth it? Here's how Elder Scott answers that question in his most recent conference talk (at the time of this writing):
Choose to converse with your Father in Heaven often. Make time every day to share your thoughts and feelings with Him. Tell Him everything that concerns you. He is interested in the most important as well as the most mundane facets of your life. Share with Him your full range of feelings and experiences.
Because He respects your agency, Father in Heaven will never force you to pray to Him. But as you exercise that agency and include Him in every aspect of your daily life, your heart will begin to fill with peace, buoyant peace. That peace will focus an eternal light on your struggles. It will help you to manage those challenges from an eternal perspective.
Parents, help safeguard your children by arming them morning and night with the power of family prayer. Children are bombarded every day with the evils of lust, greed, pride, and a host of other sinful behaviors. Protect your children from daily worldly influences by fortifying them with the powerful blessings that result from family prayer. Family prayer should be a nonnegotiable priority in your daily life.
God is interested in us. Buoyant peace. Eternal perspective. Safeguarded. Powerful blessings. Prayer is, in Elder Scott's words, "nonnegotiable"--like breathing.
Can I do it?
What about regular study of the scriptures? Is it worth it? Again, from Elder Scott:
We talk to God through prayer. He most often communicates back to us through His written word. To know what the voice of the Divine sounds and feels like, read His words, study the scriptures, and ponder them. Make them an integral part of everyday life. If you want your children to recognize, understand, and act on the promptings of the Spirit, you must study the scriptures with them.
Don’t yield to Satan’s lie that you don’t have time to study the scriptures. Choose to take time to study them. Feasting on the word of God each day is more important than sleep, school, work, television shows, video games, or social media. You may need to reorganize your priorities to provide time for the study of the word of God. If so, do it!
There are many prophetic promises of the blessings of daily studying the scriptures.
I add my voice with this promise: as you dedicate time every day, personally and with your family, to the study of God’s word, peace will prevail in your life. That peace won’t come from the outside world. It will come from within your home, from within your family, from within your own heart. It will be a gift of the Spirit. It will radiate out from you to influence others in the world around you. You will be doing something very significant to add to the cumulative peace in the world.
I do not declare that your life will cease to have challenges. Remember when Adam and Eve were in the garden, they were free from challenges, yet they were unable to experience happiness, joy, and peace. Challenges are an important part of mortality. Through daily, consistent scripture study, you will find peace in the turmoil around you and strength to resist temptations. You will develop strong faith in the grace of God and know that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ all will be made right according to God’s timing.
Can I do it?
It is, of course, too much to ask of ourselves to think that we can change our habits instantly. Satisfaction, even in small amounts of progress is required. President Uchdorf shares this metaphor in his talk entitled "Four Titles":
We have all seen a toddler learn to walk. He takes a small step and totters. He falls. Do we scold such an attempt? Of course not. What father would punish a toddler for stumbling? We encourage, we applaud, and we praise because with every small step, the child is becoming more like his parents.
Now, brethren, compared to the perfection of God, we mortals are scarcely more than awkward, faltering toddlers. But our loving Heavenly Father wants us to become more like Him, and...that should be our eternal goal too. God understands that we get there not in an instant but by taking one step at a time.
Recently I heard someone describe their lack of consistency with such fundamentals as "spiritual ADD", an intersting metaphor which is certainly familiar to many of us. Focus takes practive and real effort, maybe even guidance and help from priesthood leaders.
In discussing our physical and spiritual health, we shouldn't leave out mental health. I believe that poor physical and mental health can crowd out good spiritual health. Our body, mind and spirit are connected in ways I don't yet understand but the connection is real and delicate. Elder Holland gave a landmark address regarding emotional and mental health that sheds some light:
So how do you best respond when mental or emotional challenges confront you or those you love? Above all, never lose faith in your Father in Heaven, who loves you more than you can comprehend. As President Monson said to the Relief Society sisters so movingly last Saturday evening: “That love never changes. … It is there for you when you are sad or happy, discouraged or hopeful. God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve [it]. It is simply always there.” Never, ever doubt that, and never harden your heart. Faithfully pursue the time-tested devotional practices that bring the Spirit of the Lord into your life. Seek the counsel of those who hold keys for your spiritual well-being. Ask for and cherish priesthood blessings. Take the sacrament every week, and hold fast to the perfecting promises of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Believe in miracles. I have seen so many of them come when every other indication would say that hope was lost. Hope is never lost. If those miracles do not come soon or fully or seemingly at all, remember the Savior’s own anguished example: if the bitter cup does not pass, drink it and be strong, trusting in happier days ahead.
In preventing illness whenever possible, watch for the stress indicators in yourself and in others you may be able to help. As with your automobile, be alert to rising temperatures, excessive speed, or a tank low on fuel. When you face “depletion depression,” make the requisite adjustments. Fatigue is the common enemy of us all—so slow down, rest up, replenish, and refill. Physicians promise us that if we do not take time to be well, we most assuredly will take time later on to be ill.
If things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. Be honest with them about your history and your struggles. Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.
Sometimes we might just need to remember that God loves us and that his mercy and grace are available. We may be closer than we think to having confidence in the course of our life. Elder Jörg Klebingat explained it this way:
Whenever the adversary cannot persuade imperfect yet striving Saints such as you to abandon your belief in a personal and loving God, he employs a vicious campaign to put as much distance as possible between you and God. The adversary knows that faith in Christ—the kind of faith that produces a steady stream of tender mercies and even mighty miracles—goes hand in hand with a personal confidence that you are striving to choose the right. For that reason he will seek access to your heart to tell you lies—lies that Heavenly Father is disappointed in you, that the Atonement is beyond your reach, that there is no point in even trying, that everyone else is better than you, that you are unworthy, and a thousand variations of that same evil theme.
As long as you allow these voices to chisel away at your soul, you can’t approach the throne of God with real confidence. Whatever you do, whatever you pray for, whatever hopes for a miracle you may have, there will always be just enough self-doubt chipping away at your faith—not only your faith in God but also your confidence in yourself. Living the gospel in this manner is no fun, nor is it very healthy. Above all, it is completely unnecessary! The decision to change is yours—and yours alone.
Certainly, when we believe the lies Satan tells us, it will be more difficult to feel the influence of the Holy Ghost and make good choices. Our Heavenly Father is always nearby, even if we don't feel his presence. The Gift of the Holy Ghost does more for us than we realize, perhaps much like the water that to a fish is so pervasive and all-encompassing, yet not noticed. He has given us mortality so we can learn to take care of our physical bodies, our minds, and consequently, our spirits so that one day they can be housed in a resurrected body that is comfortable in his presence.
Oliver Cowdry captures the possibilities of the future in the Pearl of Great price when he describes his experience of receiving the ministration of angels and witnessing the translation of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith:
I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage. No; nor has this earth power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow-men, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave; but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior, from the bosom of eternity, strikes it all into insignificance, and blots it forever from the mind. The assurance that we were in the presence of an angel, the certainty that we heard the voice of Jesus, and the truth unsullied as it flowed from a pure personage, dictated by the will of God, is to me past description, and I shall ever look upon this expression of the Savior’s goodness with wonder and thanksgiving while I am permitted to tarry; and in those mansions where perfection dwells and sin never comes, I hope to adore in that day which shall never cease.
—Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1 (October 1834), pp. 14–16.
4 Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.
"Lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds" -Neal A Maxwell
"Make the Exercise of Faith Your First Priority" -Richard G. Scott:
"Like a Broken Vessel" -Jeffrey R. Holland
"Four Titles" -Dieter F. Uchtdorf