Author’s note: With the Church recently introducing new wording for “excommunication” to “Withdrawal of Church membership” in the new General Handbook, you will see both terms used throughout this piece.
“I felt the Holy Ghost leave me the minute I was excommunicated.” This is a phrase that I have heard multiple times from people who had their membership withdrawn in previous years or who have heard it from others who had their membership withdrawn. This, however, was not my experience. My membership may have been withdrawn from the Church, but I reacquainted with the Spirit as I returned through faith in Christ and repentance.
I spent the 7 years prior without the continued guidance of the Holy Ghost because of the life I was living, the bitterness toward the Church that I held, and the lies I was keeping. My life was not compatible with the constant companionship of the Spirit.
My heart was unexpectedly ready to receive the Spirit during an impromptu visit from the missionaries on a very ordinary night. Their lesson, though short, gave me the sudden courage and strength to not only come forward with my transgressions, but actually want to change, and a belief that I could change because of the Spirit that filled my heart “not of any worthiness of myself.” It was a confusing and liberating feeling…it was actual hope.
I knew coming forward would result in my Church membership being withdrawn, and would hurt my family in very real ways, but I finally felt in my heart the absolute need to change or that I would finally “abandon myself to destruction.”
It was only a month later that I would hear them say that my membership was indeed being withdrawn, but during that council, I felt the Spirit. The next day, while sitting in sacrament meeting, I experienced a paradigm shift, as I had spent my entire life, up until that moment, believing that I didn’t belong.
So why didn’t I feel the Spirit leave when I was excommunicated? How is it possible that I was feeling the Spirit during this month of confessing and forsaking? It’s because I was returning to the Lord and practicing righteousness. My heart was opening, and I was willing to learn. It was my lack of respect toward divinity, my rebellious heart, and my willful disobedience to the gospel covenants I had made that severed my relationship with the Spirit years before.
My excommunication didn’t break my covenant relationship with this member of the Godhead….it introduced me to Him in ways that I can hardly express.
There were so many things that I had to relearn as I was returning to activity in my faith, and many of those lessons came from my association with the Spirit, with wise leaders who guided my efforts. I had to make a conscious and deliberate effort to receive the Spirit, but He often came when I was sincerely learning and inviting Him to teach me.
Joseph Smith taught, “There is a difference between the Holy Ghost and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he was baptized, which was the convincing power of God unto him of the truth of the gospel, but he could not receive the gift of the Holy Ghost until after he was baptized. Had he not taken this…ordinance upon him, the Holy Ghost which convinced him of the truth of God, would have left him.”
I love the language in the scriptures regarding our relationship with the Holy Ghost. When we are baptized, we are cleansed and enter the path of discipleship. Following baptism, we are confirmed a member of the Church and instructed to “receive the Holy Ghost.”
Elder L. Tom Perry explained, “as with all gifts, this gift must be received and accepted to be enjoyed…This did not mean that the Holy Ghost unconditionally became your constant companion. Scriptures warn us that the Spirit of the Lord will ‘not always strive with man.’ When we are confirmed, we are given the right to the companionship of the Holy Ghost, but it is a right that we must continue to earn through obedience and worthiness.”
This is why partaking of the sacrament is so important. We renew our baptismal covenants that we “may always have His Spirit to be with” us. “May” is such an important word. It isn’t resolute and binding, but rather signifies our willingness to receive Him by living according to that privilege.
Nephi understood this relationship with the Spirit when he taught that “when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth unto the hearts of the children of men.” The Lord will not violate our agency, even with the Spirit.
Amulek too exhorted people to “contend no more against the Holy Ghost, but receive it, and take upon you the name of Christ.”
There is so much responsibility that I took for granted with this “unspeakable gift.” My heart was hard. There were countless times that I can now recall when the Lord was calling me back to the covenant path, but I was “past feeling, that [I] could not feel his words.”
A few months after having my membership withdrawn, I found myself working outside of my hometown in the mountains I grew up exploring. It was a peaceful familiar drive and I was pondering on my present state and sent a message to my stake president asking him why the influence of the world was so strong for someone who receives a testimony of the gospel.
Within minutes my wife sent me a text message with a Book of Mormon scripture she found that immediately answered my question.
And as sure as the Lord liveth, so sure as many as believed, or as many as were brought to the knowledge of the truth, through the preachings of Ammon and his brethren, according to the spirit of revelation and of prophecy, and the power of God working miracles in them—yea, as the Lord liveth, as many of the Lamanites believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away. For they became a righteous people; thy did lay down the weapons of their rebellion, that they did not fight against God any more…
She had no idea the questions I was pondering, but her text came at the right moment when, yet again, the Spirit took an opportunity to teach me. At that moment I began to identify “weapons of my rebellion” that I often used to fight against God. I wanted to reach that level of conversion to Christ that I never would fall away. It was another Light of Christ opportunity that allowed this disaffected heart to hear the teachings of the Holy Ghost and a moment that I will forever be grateful for.
I had more interactions with the Holy Ghost during that year where I was no longer on the records of the Church than the seven years prior because I was receiving a new heart. God was replacing my stony heart with a heart of flesh. He was changing my spirit and giving me His Spirit. I was becoming something better than I was.
The Spirit is continuing to transform me and my family in ways that we could not have imagined, and it is because we are continually seeking for those promptings from the Spirit, those personalized commandments from a member of the Godhead.
My stake president taught me that this was another cycle in the gospel. He called it the “Pure Heart Cycle.” Unlike the repentance cycle, or the “Clean Hands Cycle,” which has multiple steps, this new cycle has two simple steps.
When we receive any communication from the Spirit, we first listen, and then we obey. This has a sanctifying effect in our heart. This is the cycle of becoming.
It is access to the atonement of Christ that builds our faith as we receive evidence that those communications are divine and assurance that we are firmly on the covenant path.
Both cycles help us access and apply the power of the atonement in our life. Both are a gift, and both are necessary to help us “stand in His holy place,” and one day look upon God. This is the doctrine of Christ, to become more than we are through Christ. The gift of His Spirit is a catalyst for that level of transformation.
I again received that right to the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost when I was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church for the second time in my life on May 1, 2018, exactly twenty-five years after my first baptism. The second time I was more deliberate in my decision and a stronger sense of what my discipleship should entail.
It isn’t merely about obedience for the sake of obedience. It is about obedience with the intent to draw upon the gift and power of heaven, to bless others where I can, and to become acquainted with Christ.
I had major problems with the Church, its doctrine, its history and personally living up to its standards. I was lost in bitterness and engulfed in sin. I had hardened my heart against the Holy Spirit for years and in less than a year, those feelings changed to gratitude, and faith, such that I have never had before.
There is still a lot that I am learning about the covenant relationships that we have with divinity, but what I have gained is a deliberate path to follow, seeking the promised blessings found with every invitation to improve, grow, and become a Saint through the Atonement of Christ. And I find joy and comfort knowing that I don’t walk that path alone, as I walk with the guiding influence of the Spirit.