Many of my fellow Latter-day Saints explain their conversion as a result of feeling a “burning bosom.” Why? Where does this phrase come from? Why do so many people experience the Spirit in this way?
The Background of the Burning Bosom
The phrase burning bosom comes from D&C 9:8:
“If it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you.”
The section is a revelation directly to Oliver Cowdery explaining to him how he would experience the manifestation of the Holy Ghost in translating the scriptures.
But even though this verse is describing the experience one person will have, many others have described similar experiences.
In Luke 24:32, those that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection said:
“Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way.”
In fact, this experience has been discussed at length outside the scriptures too. Justin Martyr, one of the early Christians, described his first experience learning about the Old Testament as:
“Straightway a flame was kindled in my soul.”
The popular revivalist Congregationalist preacher, Jonathan Edwards, experienced the Spirit the same way:
“The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were a sweet burning in my heart.”
With so many people from so many times and places experience a burning in their bosom, you may expect that either you should feel a burning bosom or that the burning bosom isn’t real. Neither is true.
Many Manifestations of the Spirit
While some people describe feeling the Spirit as heat, this is almost certainly a way for them to use the vocabulary they have available to describe an experience that is outside our physical existence.
Boyd K. Packer said, “We do not have the words which perfectly describe the Spirit.”
You may describe it as a metaphor, or simply the best way to describe their experience. But heat is not the only way people describe experiences with the Spirit.
What the Spirit sounds like is another popular way to describe experiences the Spirit. Elijah described the Spirit as a “still small voice.”
In his King Follet discourse, Joseph Smith described the Spirit, “This is good doctrine. It tastes good. . . . You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life.”
You may have heard someone say the Spirit “moved them.” This is how I most often describe my personal experiences with the Spirit, though I must admit the Spirit doesn’t usually make my body physically move. This description occasionally appears in the scriptures as well.
In response to a question about how they could tell if something was the Spirit, he received a revelation with another way of describing the Spirit, “That which is of God is light.”
Jesus himself described Spiritual experiences in terms of how it affects the memory, “The Holy Ghost . . . [shall] bring all things to your remembrance.”
In a letter helping his converts experience the Spirit more fully, he described the emotions it would make them feel, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.”
It should come as no surprise that the Spirit teaches different people in different ways. Nearly all teachers recognize that different individuals learn better with different learning styles.
How Do I Know if I’m Feeling the Spirit Now?
With so many different ways that someone can feel the Spirit, it can feel as though it’s impossible to know if you’re feeling the Spirit now.
This should not come as a surprise. Learning to best recognize and respond to the Spirit should be a pursuit we work on throughout our lives.
Here are some steps we can take to help us along in that process.
1. Good and Evil
Understanding what is and is not the Spirit is not always that complicated. Yes there are many different ways that people experience the Spirit. But no one said it tasted like vinegar. No one said it gave them the emotion of fear. As Moroni explained, “all things which are good cometh of God. ”
2. If it’s Good, Do It
You will learn as you move forward with good things if the feeling that prompted you to do it was the Spirit. And as long as you are relying on what you have been taught is good, then you do not need to worry if you are going down a dangerous path.
3. Look Back on Your Life
You are the foremost expert on your inner-life. So you think about those times in your life that you felt most confident that you were aligned with the will of God. What did that feel like? Think back to times when afterwards you realized you had been led by the Spirit. What did it feel like beforehand?
4. Keep a journal
As you experiment trying to tune in to the way the Spirit communicates with you, write down your experiences. Try to choose words that fit your experience the best. Then go back and read what you wrote. Over time you will begin to notice patterns.
As you make a conscious effort to learn how the Spirit speaks to you, you will discover the answer. And if you don’t describe that as a “burning bosom,” that’s completely fine.