Editor’s Note: Beloved Meridian author Darla Isackson passed away. We will continue to share her wonderful insights here periodically.
I’ve sometimes felt spiritually paralyzed by extreme doubt and fear, questioning my beliefs, who I am, and what the Lord wants me to do with my life. Latter-day Saint Psychologist John C. Turpin pinpointed the most likely reason for these feelings and called it: “the Spiritual Stress Cycle” In his book, Stress Reduction for Mormons, he describes this cycle:
The Spiritual Stress Cycle is a pattern one gets into by not following individual promptings of the Spirit of the Lord. The Spiritual Stress Cycle can be illustrated as follows:
- The Spirit prompts an individual to change [or to move forward in some kind of positive action].
- The individual agrees with the prompting and intends to follow it but procrastinates.
- The more he procrastinates, the more he experiences a decreased sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit.
- Procrastination and the resulting decrease in sensitivity lead to confusion. The person is no longer sure about what he should do. (John C. Turpin, Stress Reduction for Mormons, 1991 Covenant Communications, Inc. American Fork, Utah, 14)
I can see this pattern clearly in my life. I remember a specific time I resisted a prompting to move ahead in a personal life decision. When I finally did, the confusion lifted and I made progress again. Another time I received specific promptings to write a book to comfort others who had lost a loved one to suicide. But for some time I listened to Satan’s arguments against it and failed to obey. The longer I delayed, the more arguments the adversary cooked up against doing it.
Many promptings of the Holy Ghost seem to detour us from our immediate needs or desires. (In my case my immediate need seemed to be more rest and my desire was to avoid digging back into the soil of my grief.) It is not uncommon to receive promptings to actions that are inconvenient and difficult. (These definitely were.) The longer I delayed, the more the adversary tried to con me into believing I hadn’t received the spiritual prompting in the first place—even though I had felt it strongly.
Any time the adversary gets us to believe we were mistaken about promptings that our hearts know are true, we are left in distress. The more we avoid following through on promptings, the stronger our need to defend our disobedience, and the more “reasons” the adversary will provide to justify our current course.
In my case, the more I procrastinated, the more confused I became, the worse I felt about myself, and the less I was praying or feeling the Spirit.
The Fear Factor
The real reason I was not moving ahead was pure and simple: Fear. I was afraid of failing, afraid of the outcome, afraid that I wasn’t up to the task. Here’s another fear I had: that if I followed every prompting the Lord would work me to death. But does the Lord say, “Come unto me and I’ll drive you into the ground by giving you more than you can possibly do?” No. He says “Come unto me, and I will give you rest.”
What Makes His Yoke Easy?
His yoke is easy not because the jobs He assigns are easy or because we are made independently strong, but because we are yoked with Him! In a Meridian Magazine article called “When My Yoke Is Easy and My Burden is Light,” Larry Barkdull said, “God programmed the experience of life to be one of continual lack. Our resources and abilities seldom equal what is required to heft our burdens. As we struggle to cope and progress, we find ourselves in the constant need of seeking help from someone who has greater strength and ability. Try as we might, we cannot change life’s program. But once we admit that we will never have enough and that we need constant help, we will be in a better position to come to Jesus and draw strength from a Resource that never diminishes.”
Essential Prayer and Why I Resist It
Oh, how I needed that strength. I knew earnest prayer was the key to being yoked with Him, but for a time I hadn’t been doing well at praying and still I found myself holding back. So I explored the reasons I might resist praying
- I’m too tired.
- I’m afraid of praying amiss.
- I don’t feel the Spirit right now.
- I doubt my current spiritual standing.
- I feel like I’m “on trial” when I make an earnest prayer request and that if I don’t hear the answer, I’ve failed. If I don’t try, I can’t fail.
- My mind is too cluttered with all the daily demands to listen for an answer—and I’m afraid I won’t hear it anyway. (Of course the real problem in the situation I’m talking about is that I had heard an answer and was ignoring it.)
Somehow, it helped to see in black and white what was holding me back. The adversary was tempting me not to pray. The need to pray and the source of resistance to prayer is perfectly explained in 2 Nephi 32:8-9: “For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray. But behold, I say unto you that must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate they performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.”
Obstacles and Delays Are Inevitable
The basis of faithful prayer is letting it be okay for the answers to come in the Lord’s way, in the Lord’s time. In a Meridian Magazine April 2010 article called “When God Lets Us Be Cast into a Pit,” Maurine Proctor said of Joseph of Egypt,
Surely there were days for Joseph when it seemed there were no answers, when the heavens were silent and he had been forgotten, nevertheless he persisted in faith, pressed forward in hope. With Nephi, he must have said, “I know in whom I have trusted” ( 2 Nephi 4:19).
This is what spiritual radiance is all about. It sees beyond the moment, beyond the grief, beyond the temporal trials. On those days when answers are not clear, spiritual radiance calls out to God and remembers that He has been there before and He is there now. Spiritual radiance shines brightest in the darkness.
Studying Joseph we see that the wait for rescue may sometimes be long, the days trying, but God wants our faith to be a sturdy thing. In fact, life will demand it and would not be according to its purpose if we could squeak by with a fragile faith that can be shredded in the winds of adversity. God is making something of us that could not be forged in easier circumstances.
I’m learning to keep going back to the Lord in prayer regardless of the temptation or obstacles, or delays in getting the answers I want. When I renew my determination to pray with real intent and be obedient to promptings, I open the door to the Spirit.
Spiritual and Physical Ebbs and Flows
If my heart is right and I’m doing the right things, yet I still don’t feel the Spirit, the reason is usually physical. Sometimes it’s plain old fatigue. Fervent prayer and listening for the Spirit takes energy! If I am emotionally or physically strung out and over-tired, it’s simply not as likely to happen. Sometimes the physical reason I haven’t been feeling the Spirit has been chemical depression. At one point a nurse practitioner ordered tests which showed that the neuro-transmitters in my brain were badly out of balance. She prescribed a treatment of natural supplements. (“NeuroScience” provided information for these tests and treatments.) Happily, I was depression-free for a long period after that.
With that obstacle removed, and my prayer efforts renewed, I began sensing the Lord’s help more consistently in my life. He gave me the strength to quit procrastinating, move forward, and follow promptings. One caution here. I’ve come to accept the ebb and flow of my spiritual sensitivity. Maybe it’s like the train ride that President Hinckley referred to with only occasional breath-taking vistas. Even when I make certain my environment is conducive and my thoughts are focused on scripture and prayer and true ideas, some days it seems easy to feel the Spirit and some days hard. There are so many variables in regard to my physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being that affect my spiritual in-tune-ness. But my faith has grown that the Spirit is always mindful of me whether I can feel it at the moment or not.
The Value of the Gift of the Holy Ghost
Over the long haul I’ve gained a new appreciation for the exquisite Gift of the Holy Ghost in my life. There is great value in receiving and acting on promptings from this loving member of the Godhead—in addition to avoiding the spiritual stress cycle! A person who had been re-baptized a year after his ex-communication told me he had no idea how vital and important the Gift of the Holy Ghost was in his life until it was gone. He said he felt lost and rudderless without it. He stated his determination to listen to and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost, feeling like a new person now that he had the Gift of the Holy Ghost back in his life. He looked different. His countenance had changed. I rejoiced with him and wanted to do better at appreciating and paying heed to promptings from the Holy Ghost myself.
Giving Heed and Choosing the Fruits of the Spirit
To give heed to promptings is such an important principle. When we are given promptings, our diligence in following them determines how much more we will receive: “The portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.” (Alma 12:9) I have said for many years that to have the Holy Spirit as my guide is my deepest desire—yet how often have I disregarded the guidance I’ve received?
As I’ve been reminded of the spiritual stress cycle, I’ve wondered how much of the stress in my life could be attributed to NOT immediately following promptings. To listen to promptings and ACT on them has become one of my foremost goals. I can tell you from experience that there is no greater stress than getting into the Spiritual Stress Cycle! I don’t know about you—but I don’t need one more ounce of stress. I’d so much rather choose the fruits of the Spirit which come from obeying the Spirit!
Happily, in the case I was referencing, I quit procrastinating, made the book I needed to write a high priority, and prayed constantly for direction as I moved ahead in the writing process. I received that guidance I needed, and the result was not one but two books that have provided comfort for many who have lost loved ones to suicide.
I often go back and remind myself of the Spiritual Stress Cycle, knowing from experience how easy it is to fall into that pattern.
When the source of our stress could be possibly be connected to procrastinating promptings, may we be motivated to repent and move ahead in doing the Lord’s will. May we give heed to our promptings quickly, thus choosing the fruits of the Spirit instead of the stress that comes from ignoring them. Paul told the Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22–23). I can’t think of any more desirable blessings!
Author Note: Check out my website for more information concerning free offer on the books I referred to writing in this article: After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On, and Finding Hope While Grieving Suicide: Opening Your Heart to the Healing Only God Can Give