Two Reasons Why the Spirit Withdraws

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Randy Bott

You are serving with all your heart, might, mind, and strength, and then suddenly the Spirit is gone. What is the matter? Is the Lord displeased with you? Should you pack up and go home? Should you call the mission president? Perhaps understanding why the Spirit withdraws from people will help calm your fears.

Most of us are aware that when we sin, the Lord gives us a "wake-up-call" by withdrawing his Spirit. Isaiah talked about this problem when he taught, "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Isaiah 59:2). The Lord doesn't expect us to be perfect before he allows us to enjoy his Spirit. But he does expect us to live a certain standard of righteousness according to our level of light and knowledge.

Knowing that every person comes from a different background and has had different opportunities to receive spiritual instruction, the Lord wisely counseled, "Leave judgment alone with me" (D&C 82:23).

In theory, the Spirit could leave you because you, knowing better, did something wrong, while it may remain with your companion, even though he participated (Perhaps quite innocently) in the same act. That is, it is not your place to pass judgment on whether your companion is qualified to have the Spirit with him or her; for all you know, he or she could be doing rather well considering his or her depth of understanding, experience, and maturity. You should concentrate on your constant worthiness.

When the Spirit withdraws, stop and ask yourself, "Am I doing anything wrong now that I wasn't doing an hour ago?" If you are, it will be pretty evident. Then immediately repent, pray for forgiveness, and continue working. You will make mistakes on your mission.

One of the great repentance lessons was taught by President Brigham Young, who said, "I do not recollect that I have seen five minutes since I was baptized that I have not been ready to preach a funeral sermon, lay hands on the sick, or to pray in private or in public." How would you like to be able to say that?

Thankfully, President Young taught us his method: "I will tell you the secret of this. In all your business transactions, words, and communications, if you commit an overt act, repent of that immediately, and call upon God to deliver you from evil and give you the light of His spirit. Never do a thing that your conscience, and the light within you, tell you is wrong" (in Journal of Discourses, 12:103).

Can't you do the same thing? Stop immediately and say, "Heavenly Father, I'm sorry I've made a mistake. I'll try never to do it again; please apply the atoning blood of the Savior in my behalf. If there is anything you want me to do to make it right, reveal it to me, and I'll do it. Otherwise, I will consider the matter closed and go on." Too often we punish ourselves forever because "the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41).

Our Heavenly Father knows and understands that missionaries are prime targets for the devil and his angels. Although the Lord does not look on sin with the least degree of allowance, he does make allowances for the sinner.

You will discover that life (not just your mission) will require constant repentance as the Lord refines you. You may also discover that some things you previously considered to be "okay" are now wrong.

This realization brings us to the second reason why the Spirit may seem to leave a person. When you master trials and lessons on one level, the Lord may withdraw to some degree the directions of his Spirit, much as a wise parent lets go of a child's hand when the child is wise enough to cross the street without help.

You wonder what is wrong. But sensing that you aren't doing anything different than you were an hour ago when you felt the Spirit striving with you, an appropriate response might be to humbly pray and thank your Heavenly Father for having confidence in your ability to move to a higher level of commitment and spirituality.

You can then examine your personality, attitude, habits, ways of interacting with people, and your relationship with Deity. If you need to work on an area, the Spirit will let you know. As you consciously work on improving in that area, the Spirit will return.

Time passes, and you will feel fairly confident that you have mastered the new Christlike characteristic. Then the Spirit withdraws. When the Spirit withdraws, you may not feel like being good. But you know you are on the right track, so you bridge the spiritual gap and do what you know you should. Before long, the test is over and the Spirit returns, carrying you to a higher level.

This process may seem overly simple, but it accurately describes how the missionaries report their progress. The scriptures also confirm this process. In 2 Chrinicles 32:31 is recorded this timely explanation: "God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart." We must learn to know ourselves well enough so that we are willing to do whatever the Lord requires of us—even when we are not highly motivated by the Spirit to do it.

If you were always in touch with the Spirit, you would not be tempted. President Brigham Young taught this principle in a powerful sermon:

"I ask, is there a reason for men and women being exposed more constantly and more powerfully, to the power of the enemy, by having visions than by not having them? There is and it is simply this—God never bestows upon His people, or upon an individual, superior blessings without a severe trial to prove them, to prove that individual, or that people, to see whether they will keep their covenants with Him, and keep in remembrance what He has shown them. Then the greater the vision, the greater the display of the power of the enemy. And when such individuals are off their guard they are left to themselves, as Jesus was. For this express purpose the Father withdrew His spirit from His Son, at the time he was to be crucified. Jesus had been with his Father, talked with Him, dwelt in His bosom, and knew all about heaven, about making the earth, about the transgression of man, and what would redeem the people, and that he was the character who was to redeem the sons of earth, and the earth itself from all sin that had come upon it. The light, knowledge, power, and glory with which he was clothed were far above, or exceeded that of all others who had been upon the earth after the fall, consequently at the very moment, at the hour when the crisis came for him to offer up his life, the Father withdrew Himself, withdrew His Spirit, and cast a vail (sic) over him. That is what made him sweat blood. If he had had the power of God upon him, he would not have sweat blood; but all was withdrawn from him and a veil was cast over him, and he then plead with the Father not to forsake him, 'No,' says the Father, 'you must have your trials, as well as others.'

"So when individuals are blessed with visions, revelations, and great manifestations, look out, then the devil is nigh you, and you will be tempted in proportion to the vision, revelation, or manifestation you have received. Hence thousands, when they are off their guard, give way to the severe temptations which come upon them, and behold they are gone (in Journal of Discourses, 3:205-6)."

Perhaps you may feel like a Mormon yo-yo! You rise to a certain level, the Spirit withdraws so you can be tempted; you fall back where you were, the Spirit returns to pick you up; then it leaves again and you fall, only to start the process all over again.

Wouldn't it be more productive to replace that scenario with one like this: You rise to a certain level, the Spirit leaves so you can be tested; you live the principle you just learned, even though you don't feel particularly motivated to be good; the Spirit returns to help you move to the next higher level; the cycle repeats over and over as the Lord perfects you?

Understanding the Lord's process of perfecting you will help you avoid condemning yourself when the Spirit withdraws. When the Spirit withdraws because of sin, it is like a swift kick in the pants.

When the Spirit leaves because you are being tested at a higher level, it is a pat on the back. This congratulatory signal shows that your Heavenly Father is confident that you are ready for the next level in your spiritual progression.

It is imperative not to mistake the pat on the back for the kick in the pants. It is equally imperative that you not think you are being congratulated when, in reality, you are being chastised.

The adversary will constantly tell you that the Spirit withdraws because you are bad, have sinned, or are hopelessly lost. Satan wants you to give up and go home disgraced. However, if you know what is really happening to you, you can command him to leave.

He is the destroyer, the great deceiver, the eternal pessimist. There is a simple yet effective way to decide if it is Satan telling you that you are worthless or if it is the Lord urging you to move ahead.

When the Spirit withdraws, Satan will cause you to feel worthless, discouraged, depressed, hopeless, unmotivated, unworthy, and useless; Heavenly Father will cause the feelings of "I can do this; I need to take another step forward; give me another mountain to climb."

Heavenly Father will build you up. The feelings of humble confidence, optimism, excitement, and exhilaration for the challenge are all indications that the Lord is coaxing you to improve yourself and to take the next important step on your pathway to exaltation.

Not only will this be a valuable lesson to learn, but you can also bless the lives of your companions, members, and investigators. Too many people act like lost puppies, believing they have sinned, when they should actually be jubilant because our Heavenly Father wants them to take on their next great challenge.

Your ability to discern the difference in why the Spirit leaves could save you and many others a lot of worry and wasted time. Knowing the difference will also help you to make other major decisions correctly for the rest of your life.

Taken from the book: Serve with Honor, Helps for Missionaries, by Randy L. Bott, 1995


About the author: Randy Bott has many years of experience with missionary work. He served a full-time mission in Samoa from 1964 to 1967 and later worked as a stake mission president. Recently, he served as president of the California Fresno Mission. An educator by profession, Brother Bott teaches missionary preparation classes at BYU. He is also the author of Prepare with Honor: Helps for Future Missionaries and Home with Honor: Helps for Returning Missionaries. In Church callings, he has served as a Young Men president, a bishop, a high councilor, and a counselor in a stake presidency. He and his wife, Vickie, are the parents of six children.