A familiar trope of the travelogue testimony is a narrative of a visit to a distant ward or branch, and how that meeting felt wonderful, even if (or especially if) the speaker could not understand the local language. This feeling is proof that the Church is true. Sometimes the congregation also hears a contrasting experience about how uncomfortable the traveler was in a Cathedral or other non-LDS sacred space and meeting. I feel reasonably confident that any readers with ward members wealthy enough to travel have heard some version of this anecdote.
To be perfectly fair in what is about to become a critique, I have felt similar feelings of comfort or discomfort. As an American living in France it was comforting to go to Church and hear familiar tunes, participate in familiar rituals, and follow a familiar schedule even if the text, language and personal experiences of the members were not American. It felt like I was home in a time when I felt so incompetent and flustered over the simplest things, like buying stamps or a metro pass. I also went to Mass a handful of times, in part because I was lonely and bored on Sunday with nothing to do all afternoon and at least with more church I’d be around people. The surroundings were beautiful but very unfamiliar, with winking candles and the smell of incense and echoing stone walls. I speak French well, but apparently not well enough to follow chanting and I don’t know enough about Mass to really guess what was going on. I felt very uncomfortable, and it wasn’t just the hard pew.
The scriptures teach us that the Holy Ghost is a spirit of comfort and a spirit of truth.
“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you . . . But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
(John 14: 16-17, 26-27)
We can receive a witness of truth by the feelings that the Holy Ghost gives us. People who have experienced this often describe that feeling as one of warmth, peace, stillness, happiness – comfort! And we can also receive warnings when we encounter situations that are dangerous spiritually or physically. Those feelings are often the opposite – an uneasiness, a desire to leave, a yucky feeling in our stomachs.
I think, however, that it can be too easy as members to assume that feelings of comfort or discomfort come from the Holy Ghost, and therefore our responses to those feelings are righteous ones. As a white person, it can be very uncomfortable to confront systemic racism, or to have a non-white person express pain and oppression at the hands of white people. The same is true of men listening to the experience of women within a patriarchy, or straight people listening to the experience of LGBTQ+ folks. It can be true for Mormons encountering other faith traditions, or people of any country encountering foreigners. Those feelings of discomfort can seem a lot like warnings from the Holy Ghost – maybe you want to leave, or you feel a clench in your gut, or just uneasy. Similarly, we might feel comfortable around people expression political opinions we share, or hanging out primarily with people who share our skin tone or cultural background.
This is what I think we need to say loud and clear in every lesson on the Holy Ghost:
Just because you’re comfortable, it doesn’t mean the Comforter is witnessing truth. And just because you’re uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that you’re receiving a witness of untruth or wickedness.
I did many things as a missionary that made me profoundly uncomfortable: Talking to strangers, knocking on doors, sharing my vulnerable feelings. I almost always felt a desire to run away instead. That doesn’t mean what I was doing was displeasing to God or inconsistent with truth. I’m an introvert and in any case, proselytizing violates a lot of cultural norms around minding your own business and religion being a private matter.
I have also done or said things in my life that at the time comfortable, but which I now cringe to think of. “The Church isn’t sexist” is an example that springs to mind – it was the easy thing to say and it fit with what everyone around me wanted to hear. That doesn’t make it true. In middle school I was in the class production of “Peter Pan” complete with being a member of the “Indian” chorus who sang a song with the following lyrics: “Guk-a-bluk waaaah—hooo! Ug a wug ug a wug waahhh.” The choreography, costuming and makeup are as appalling as you might be imagining. I was uncomfortable only because of stage fright. That doesn’t mean God loves cultural appropriation and demeaning stereotypes.
I don’t have an easy answer for how to discern between the Comforter witnessing truth, and our own comfort with the familiar and the easy. I only want to suggest as we enter a new year at Church that we push a little harder on those questions in our classes and talks.