Ours is a church that believes in revelation. We believe that the church is led, globally and locally, by revelation. We also believe that we can receive revelation in our own daily lives. However, many struggle to be confident that they can discern between the promptings of the Spirit and their own emotions or thoughts.’ How can we tell whether we are really receiving an answer to our prayers?
Let me offer a few thoughts:
- Recognising the promptings of the Spirit.
Elder Boyd K. Packer taught: “The voice of the Spirit is a still, small voice—a voice that is felt rather than heard.”
We commonly speak of the Holy Ghost bearing witness to us through a ‘burning in the bosom’. However, the Holy Ghost manifests itself in many ways and different people experience it in different ways. You may well experience a burning in the bosom or you may experience a deep feeling of peace or some other manifestation of the Spirit. I once served in a presidency with a president who experienced the testimony of the Spirit as a tingling down his back.
More important than how the Spirit testifies to us is that we recognize its promptings when they come. When you hear someone bear testimony, when you listen to General Conference, when you attend the temple, when you study the scriptures take note of how you feel. Learn to recognise those feelings as the Spirit. Then learn to distinguish them from other feelings. How do those feelings compare to how you feel when you watch Chariots of Fire, listen to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or stand atop a mountain and gaze at the valley below?
This is not easy: learning to recognise the Spirit can take practice and time. We need to frequently put ourselves into situations where we can experience the Spirit and then be sensitive to our thoughts and feelings.
- In your mind and in your heart
The Lord told Oliver Cowdery, “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
“Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation.” (D&C 8:2–3.)
And to Hyrum Smith he said:
13 Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy;
14 And then shall ye know, or by this shall you know, all things whatsoever you desire of me, which are pertaining unto things of righteousness, in faith believing in me that you shall receive. (D&C 11:13-14)
These scriptures indicate that the the Spirit will work both through our feelings and emotions AND through our thoughts or intellect ie he will tell us through BOTH our mind and our heart – not through one or the other in isolation. The thoughts the Spirit puts in my mind should match the feelings he puts in my heart.This is in accordance with the law of witnesses – the witness of the mind and the witness of the heart bring assurance.
Elder Jay Jensen said: “When the Holy Ghost speaks, our minds may be struck with insight and clarity akin to sudden light. At the same time, our hearts may burn or we may feel flooded with joy or deep gratitude or love. Whatever particular feelings occur, they occur simultaneously in the mind and in the heart.”
So, if we have thoughts that are not backed up by a feeling of peace or a burning in the bosom (or however the Spirit works with us individually) or if we feel that something is right emotionally but it makes no sense intellectually, then we need to be cautious in interpreting this as an answer from the Lord through the Spirit.
Of course, there may be times when the Lord wants us to do something that runs counter to conventional wisdom or to our our own predispositions. I believe that in these instances the Spirit will speak to us with a little more pressure or urgency so that we recognise its voice. Think of Nephi when the Spirit constrained him to kill Laban. This was counter to what Nephi had been taught and he shrunk from obeying the command of the Spirit. So, the Spirit makes sure that the message gets through by speaking clearly to him twice more and then by bringing to his remembrance the words of the Lord that he spoke to him in the wilderness. THEN Nephi’s doubts are dispelled, the Spirit’s command makes sense to him and he obeys.
We have also been counselled that when we ask about something, “If it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong” (D&C 9:9).
If we ask for something that is not right, rather than a feeling of peace we can experience darkness and confusion or an empty feeling.
- The Spirit leads towards that which is good.
The adversary will not prompt us to do good. Mormon said, “[The devil] persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.” (Moro. 7:17.). In contrast, Hyrum Smith was told, “Put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good.” (D&C 11:12.)
If a prompting is directing us towards something that is not good then we can be sure that it is not a genuine prompting of the Spirit. Similarly a genuine personal revelation won’t conflict with what the Lord has told us through His prophets.
The more we practice identifying the Spirit the more readily we will recognise those promptings when they come. President Spencer W Kimball told us that “God reveals himself to [people] who are prepared for such manifestations.”