Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

Defending the “Burning Bosom”

Posted by Andrew on January 4, 2008

If you Google the words “burning bosom,” you’ll find several websites and even a video that criticize Mormons for believing that God speaks to our hearts though his Holy Spirit. In LDS scripture, God tells us that when we have a question about something, “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” (D&C 9:8.) Thus, Mormons believe we need to: (1) use our minds and do research, such as scripture study (“study it out in your mind”); (2) pray to God for guidance (“ask me if it be right”); and (3) listen to our hearts for a confirmation of truth (“your bosom shall burn within you”). Mormons believe the burning in the bosom described in the scripture quoted above is God speaking to our hearts through his Holy Spirit.

To me, this approach to truth-seeking should not be controversial to anyone who has studied the Bible. However, apparently several people who claim to believe the Bible find the concept of the “burning bosom” to be a false and dangerous notion that can lead people astray.

The purpose of this post is to correct misrepresentations about the Mormon approach to discerning truth, to clarify how the “burning in the bosom” fits into that approach, and to respond to the argument that the concept of a “burning in the bosom” is non-Biblical.

What the Critics Say

In short, critics argue that the “burning bosom” is unreliable as a source of spiritual guidance because it is subjective. (Source.) Critics argue that seeking truth the Mormon way is “nothing more than the pursuit of the euphoria of a self-induced emotional epiphany,” or worse, a “demon-induced euphoria.” (Id.) They cite scriptures stating that the hearts of men are deceitful and wicked (which, of course, they are in their natural state), but then apparently draw the conclusion that God therefore never wants us to listen to our hearts under any circumstances. (Id.)

However, critics of the “burning bosom” disagree with each other about what they believe people should do to discover spiritual truth. Some critics argue that truth seekers should study “the various sources of external testimony that point to the truthworthiness of God, the Bible, the gospel, and other objective reality,” and then pray for the Holy Spirit to “confirm” or “illuminate” the truthfulness of it to them. (Id.) However, they do not explain or describe how we are to recognize when the Holy Spirit is “confirming” or “illuminating” the truthfulness of something to us personally.

Other critics argue that the truth can be learned by studying the Bible alone, and actually discourage people from praying to God to discover truth. “Remember also that Paul never asked any potential converts to pray about his message. What he taught was found in the Scriptures and they could verify it and join the group of wise people. Go by the Bible alone and be safe.” (Source.) They argue that praying to God and asking him to show you the truth exposes you to the risk of being deceived by the devil. “The devil can give you a burning in the bosom and has done so to deceive precious souls.” (Id.)

Regardless of which camp they are in (i.e., the Bible-Plus-Prayer camp or the Bible-Alone camp), critics agree that the Mormon way of searching for truth is “subjective,” while their method is supposedly “objective.” “While Mormons emphasize subjective truth (truth by feelings or experience), it is important for Christians to help explain the nature of objective truth (it remains true no matter what you experience or how you feel).” (Id.)

The Mormon Response

So how do Mormons respond to these arguments? First of all, Mormons completely agree that the Bible is the word of God and that a person should study it to discover spiritual truth. However, we also recognize that even well-intentioned truth-seekers can and do interpret the same passages of the Bible differently. (JSH 1:5-12.) One need only look at the various demoninations and sects within Christianity to recognize that people who believe in the Bible interpret its words in dramatically different and contradictory ways. The wide disagreements among Christians over how to interpret the Bible also demonstrate that interpreting scripture is likewise a subjective exercise.

Studying the Bible is good, but what do we do when we’re unsure which of the many competing interpretations of the Bible is correct? That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. Mormons believe the Holy Spirit can teach us the correct interpretation of scripture, both collectively and individually. The Bible tells us that scripture was created when “holy men spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:21.) Thus, what gives the Bible its status as “scripture” is the fact that it contains revelations given to its authors through the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, the authors of the Bible did not dismiss their revelations from the Holy Spirit as subjective, demon-induced delusions–even though the nonbelievers called them fools for believing in the validity of their personal inspiration (sound familiar?). As a result of their faith and spiritual discernment, we all have the benefit of the inspiration they received from the Holy Spirit as it is set forth in the Bible.

The Mormon approach to seeking guidance from God through the Holy Spirit is simply a logical extension of what the Bible represents and how it came to be (i.e., inspiration from the Holy Spirit). In short, Mormons simply believe that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible’s authors will likewise inspire its readers to correctly interpret and understand its words. Jesus taught the same concept when he said: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things.” (John 14:26.)

Should You Avoid Praying to God Out of Fear that the Devil Will Answer?

The Bible tells us to pray for inspiration from above when we need guidance: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” (James 1:5.) The idea that we should not pray to God out of fear that the devil will answer our prayers and deceive us is preposterous. God has promised us that he will answer our prayers:

“Ask and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?” (Matt. 7:7-11.)

How Can We Recognize When God Is Telling Us Something is Right?

Are Mormonism’s critics right to ridicule the idea that God speaks to us through subjective feelings in our hearts? The Apostle Paul taught that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc.” (Gal. 5:22.)

A New Testament story teaches us the importance of listening to our hearts. As two Christians walked to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus walked with them. The men did not recognize Jesus, presumably because it would have been logical to assume that Jesus was dead. When Jesus asked why they were sad, the men told him it was because Jesus had been crucified and his body was now missing from the tomb. Without identifying himself, Jesus rebuked the men for being “slow of heart to believe.” (Luke 24:25.) Jesus then explained to them the scriptures foretelling his resurrection. When the men finally recognized Jesus for who he truly was, they said to each other: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32.) The men lamented that they had failed to listen to their hearts and, as a result, they had failed to recognize Jesus.

The imagery of fire and burning is used to describe the Holy Spirit in another New Testament story. On the day of Pentecost, “there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:2-4.)

Of course, it is always difficult to describe encounters with the divine using man’s imperfect language; a “burning in the bosom” is an admittedly imperfect way of describing the experience of being inspired by the Holy Spirit. And it should be noted that Mormons do not believe the “burning in the bosom” is the only way the Holy Spirit manifests itself. For example, the Holy Spirit has also been likened to a “still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:12.) However, as shown above, the Bible does use the imagery of a burning in one’s heart to describe encounters with the divine. Thus, Mormons did not “make up” the concept of the burning in the bosom; it is found in the Bible.

Is the Mormon Belief in the Holy Spirit Too Subjective to Be Trusted?

Is relying on the feelings in one’s heart, and interpreting them as being inspiration from the Holy Spirit, a dangerous proposition? Mormons recognize that interpreting their personal feelings, thoughts, and impressions is a subjective exercise. And there is no question that people can and do deceive themselves in all sorts of ways. However, as explained above, interpreting scripture is likewise a subjective exercise; those who believe in the Bible interpret it in all sorts of different ways. For example, some people interpret the Bible to say that we should not drive cars, or that dancing should be prohibited, or that the Sabbath should be observed on Saturday, and so on.

Of course, it would be ludicrous to tell someone not to read the Bible because there is a risk they could misinterpret it. And it is equally ridiculous to suggest that someone not pray to God, or not believe his Holy Spirit can speak to their heart, simply because there is a risk they might misinterpret what they believe God tells them.

Mormons recognize that we need to use appropriate “checks and balances” against error when we are trying to interpret our own thoughts and feelings, or are trying to interpret the thoughts and words of scriptural authors. For example, we would agree that someone who believes the Holy Spirit is telling him to murder someone should compare that with the Biblical injunction against murder. Mormons’ belief in the Holy Spirit does not expect them to ignore common sense or scripture.

By the same token, the Bible likewise tells us to guard against the erroneous interpretation of scripture and to keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is its source: “Knowing this first, that no prophesy of scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophesy came not in old by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:20-21.)

So when we believe the Holy Spirit is giving us inspiration, we need to compare it with scripture to check against error. Likewise, when we attempt to interpret scripture, we need to ask God to have his Holy Spirit enlighten our understanding of the scriptures so that we can discern their correct interpretation. Mormons believe in relying on both the inspiration they receive from the Holy Spirit as well as scripture; not just one at the exclusion of the other.

The Challenge to Develop Spiritual Discernment

By sending us his Holy Spirit, God has indicated that he expects us to learn how to recognize it, and to listen to it. “Quench not the Spirit,” said Paul. “Despise not prophesyings,” he taught. But at the same time, “Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.” (Thes. 5:19-21.) Just as we are to avoid the extreme of blindly trusting what we believe the Holy Spirit is telling us in the face of scripture to the contrary, we need to avoid the extreme of refusing to seek or listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance in interpreting scripture.

The bottom line is that learning to recognize the Holy Spirit and to distinguish it from erroneous, man-made feelings is an intended part of our spiritual development in this life. That message is implicit in the entire second chapter of 1 Corinthians. The Apostle Paul said: “We speak, not in the words man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:13-14.)

The “things of the Spirit of God . . . are spiritually discerned.” God expects us to learn the difference between the warm fuzzies we get when we watch the Lord of the Rings, and the burning of his Holy Spirit when he is touching our hearts. Like the two Christians on the road to Emmaus, we all have to learn to recognize whether the burning in our hearts is more than just indigestion.

But the recognition that spiritual discernment may be difficult, or may carry the risk of error, or may be a “subjective” exercise, should not cause us to throw the baby out with the bath water by completely rejecting the idea that God speaks to our hearts through his Holy Spirit. So when someone tells you, “don’t ever listen to your heart,” or “don’t pray to God for guidance because the devil might answer,” ask yourself: does that sound like someone who is trying to lead me closer to God, or farther away from him?


2 Responses to “Defending the “Burning Bosom””

  1. Carlos U. said

    Amen, and Amen.

  2. joe said

    There is a question which a christian asked me years ago. It was about testimony, he asked me if there was anything that would disprove that the LDS church is true. (anything that would nullify the testimony that I had) I very quickly said ‘no’. It seemed like such a strong point, but he saw it as being very weak. For him only physical evidence and scholarly understanding of scripture was the foundation for faith. I was quite suprised by that, I guess he would be under the ‘bible only'(plus scholarly support)camp.

    I used to be a supporter of ‘objective’ reality. But I now realize that there really isn’t such a thing. Your background,culture,gender, education,age, even health status…they all colour your perception and even what information you are willing or able to take in and process.

    Even in science there isn’t just purely a detached observer. The act of studying something changes you,and what your studying and therefore the outcome.

    What you currently hold to be true, or believe in will determine what you feel is an interesting topic to evaluate further. The LDS faith has some general practices and teachings which I feel they have assumed to be true without ‘objectively’ evaluating if they are ‘the teachings of men’ or not, because of their associations with Christianity. A good example are holidays. Christmas and easter have their roots in pre-christian europe. They are called different things, and the understandings of certain things are tweeked a little bit, but they are essentially the same. But, I assure you that the larger part of the LDS membership would never think to evaluate the holidays to take a closer look.

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