Thursday, August 3, 2017

How do I Distinguish the Holy Ghost from My Own Thoughts?

Q: How do I tell the difference between promptings from the Holy Ghost and my own thoughts?

A: For some reason, this is a question which preoccupies members of the church, especially the youth and young adults.  I have heard some variation of this question in countless settings throughout the church.  I have heard it in seminary and institute classes, I have heard it during ward youth activities, and during Sunday school and priesthood classes.  I also noticed that this question cropped up in every single face to face session the general authorities have held with the young adults in the church.  Clearly, there is a burning desire to learn the answer to this question!

I think it is a good sign that so many want to know how to better recognize that voice of the spirit.  It shows that people across the church are thinking about this question, and seeking to better know the Lord.  However, I do think it is a little strange that there should be so much confusion among members of the church.  Presumably, if they are members of the church, then they have been baptized and they have received the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Since we are therefore entitled to the companionship of the Holy Ghost to guide, instruct, and direct us in our lives; surely Latter-day Saints must be experts when it comes to receiving and recognizing the spirit.

Why All the Confusion?

Given the particular facility the gift of the Holy Ghost ought to bestow upon members of the church, why is it (clearly) so difficult for us to tell the difference between the voice of the spirit and other influences?

I think part of this has to do with Church culture (as opposed to church teachings, or doctrine).  We have all been in Fast and Testimony meetings in which members have borne sweet testimony accompanied by flowing tears.  This likely has led some of our less discerning members (particularly among the youth) to assume that spiritual outpourings must therefore always be dramatic and associated with emotional outbursts.

I suspect we sometimes may be confused because the Spirit’s voice often touches our emotions—sometimes very powerfully. However, not all strongly felt emotions are the voice of the Spirit. Sometimes our fears, our excitement, our pride, our greed, our feelings of infatuation may be construed as promptings of the Spirit.” (Ned C. Hill, “Hearing the Voice of the Spirit,” Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional, March 11, 2008, http://www2.byui.edu).

“Let me offer a word of caution. … I think if we are not careful …we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself” (Howard W. Hunter, The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, 184).

Learn to Recognize the Voice of the Spirit

Remember that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22-23).  While we may be moved deeply by the joy associated with the presence and promptings of the Holy Ghost, it is important to remember that the spirit is also associated with peace, and gentleness, and temperance, rather than wild emotional outbursts.

This is often the pattern by which the Lord works, as He reminded Oliver Cowdery:

D&C 6:21-23  Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I am the same that came unto mine own, and mine own received me not. I am the light which shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not. Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?

The Lord further instructed Oliver Cowdery concerning how to recognize the Lord’s direction in D&C 9:8 when He taught him that “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.”

The “burning bosom” is the typical way that most members describe what the spirit feels like when they are trying to explain it to others.  This phenomenon is certainly well-attested throughout scripture.

For instance, the disciples at Emmaus, upon discovering that the resurrected Lord had been in their midst, recalled “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).

However, I believe that the spirit can manifest itself in slightly different ways to different people.  As such, there may be those who have not encountered a burning in the bosom, who have nevertheless experienced the sublime presence and guidance of the Holy Ghost.  Joseph Smith taught that the spirit can also feel like “pure intelligence” flowing into one’s mind.

“A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2011), 125–34).

Everyone is different, and they may experience the spirit in slightly different ways, but all who have received the gift of the Holy Ghost ought to be able to recognize the guidance and direction of the Holy Ghost when it comes. Don't be discouraged if your experience with the spirit does not precisely match the experiences of others.  Whether you experience a burning in the bosom, or pure intelligence flowing into you, the Holy Ghost will always bring feelings of "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, [and] faith," and encourage "meekness, temperance" (see Galatians 5:22-23).  The Holy Ghost will always encourage you to follow Christ in all things.

The Way to Judge

The reason it is important to be able to separate our emotions from spiritual impressions is because it is incredibly easy to let our emotions run away with our good sense.  In instances in which our emotions might be running high, our own desires can easily interfere with our ability to hear and recognize the voice of the Holy Ghost. This has been the source of much confusion among members of the church.

“I once interviewed a young woman who reported that during the week three young men independently told her that their prayers were answered and they were “instructed by the Spirit” to tell her that she was to be their wife!  Having heard the Spirit’s voice in the matter, there was little for her to do but to marry the young man—or so claimed each of the three.  Now, she was a very talented, capable and attractive young woman and would have undoubtedly made a wonderful wife for any number of young men. But did these young men hear the voice of the Spirit or the voice of their own emotions?

One test for sorting this out, as President Packer suggested, is to ask the question, “Is the prompting I feel in keeping with eternal principles?” Here the principle of free agency comes to mind. Would the Spirit give direction to one person that takes the agency away from another person? Perhaps the Spirit did confirm that this was a worthy young woman who would make a good wife. But then each of the three young men attached his own “therefore.”  “Therefore you must marry me.”  With experience and the application of common sense, we can learn to sort out the voice of the Spirit from our emotions.” (Ned C. Hill, “Hearing the Voice of the Spirit,” Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional, March 11, 2008, http://www2.byui.edu).

When seeking to determine if a prompting comes from God, or from somewhere else, the best way to judge was set forth by the prophet Mormon, in a letter preserved in the Book of Mormon by his son Moroni.

Moroni 7:16-18  For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.  And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged.

At first it may seem too simplistic to be told that “every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ” and everything that does not is from the devil.  However, this test is brilliant, because it doesn’t leave room for rationalization or self-justification.

If you receive a prompting that contradicts the teachings of the scriptures and/or the brethren in some way, that direction likely does not come from God.  If you receive “spiritual” direction for another person who does not fall within the purview of your stewardship or priesthood authority, you can rest assured that direction likely does not come from God.

More subtly, if you receive a prompting that directly confirms what you already wanted beforehand, you ought to examine it more closely to determine if you have not mistaken your own desires for spiritual direction.  You should not expect that the Lord will always agree with you concerning what is best for you.

Isaiah 55:8-9  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

A true manifestation of the Spirit should always inspire you to do good, but because people often have their own definition about what is “good,” it is helpful to remember that true spirits always seek “to persuade to believe in Christ.”  This was also taught by the Apostle John in a letter to the early church.

1 John 4:1-3  Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:  And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

You will NEVER receive a true prompting from the Holy Ghost that will do anything but lead you to the Savior.  If a prompting in any way leads you out of harmony with the teachings of the brethren, the doctrine of the church, or the words of the holy scriptures, then you ought to reject that prompting immediately as counterfeit and counterproductive.

Is the Still, Small Voice Too Small for You to Hear?

Another reason why church members may struggle to recognize the voice of the spirit is because they may have forgotten that the spirit often speaks in a still, small voice.  Those who are inexperienced in their relationship with the spirit (including the youth) may suppose that trumpets ought to sound, or angels ought to appear every time an answer comes from God. However, answers that are delivered in this manner tend to be more rare than common.

“The voice of the Spirit is described in the scripture as being neither ‘loud’ nor ‘harsh.’ It is ‘not a voice of thunder, neither … voice of a great tumultuous noise.’ But rather, ‘a still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper,’ and it can ‘pierce even to the very soul’ and ‘cause [the heart] to burn.’ (3 Ne. 11:3; Hel. 5:30; D&C 85:6–7.) Remember, Elijah found the voice of the Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but was a ‘still small voice.’ (1 Kgs. 19:12.)

“The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all. (No wonder that the Word of Wisdom was revealed to us, for how could the drunkard or the addict feel such a voice?)

“Occasionally it will press just firmly enough for us to pay heed. But most of the time, if we do not heed the gentle feeling, the Spirit will withdraw and wait until we come seeking and listening and say in our manner and expression, like Samuel of ancient times, ‘Speak [Lord], for thy servant heareth.’ (1 Sam. 3:10.)” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, 53).

We should not expect angels to appear, and trumpets to sound from heaven, whenever we seek direction from the Lord.  That is not in harmony with the descriptions of the Holy Ghost and the way he works that have been preserved in scripture.

If we want to hear the still voice of the spirit, then we should seek stillness in our own lives.  If we seek to hear the small voice of the spirit, then we should strive to become small and meek ourselves.  We should do everything in our power to be receptive to the promptings of the spirit, and also to be worthy of His presence (more on this later).

I suppose that some seek dramatic manifestations because they are like the fish who is the last one to know that it is wet.  I occasionally hear LDS youth complaining that they have never felt the spirit, or at least not very strongly.  While some of them have unreasonable expectations about the nature and scope of a typical experience with the spirit, I think others tend to take the companionship of the Holy Ghost for granted.  In this instance, I am speaking of otherwise righteous and obedient kids. I suspect this happens because these kids received the gift of the Holy Ghost when they were as young as eight years old, and they don't remember a time when they were without the spirit.  Just like the fish has a hard time understanding the concept of "wet" because it has never known anything else, these kids have been so immersed in the spirit that they occasionally take it for granted.  I believe this attitude stems mostly from inexperience, and some small amount of ignorance, in that nobody has bothered to teach them to recognize the spirit in their lives, and they do not have enough experience in the real world to have learned for themselves.

The trick is not to over-complicate or over-analyze things.  Tailor your expectations to match the descriptions contained in the scriptures.  Ignorance is not a valid excuse: study to learn what it takes to hear and recognize the voice and direction of the Holy Ghost.  If you don't feel like you have had an experience with the spirit, then go places and participate in activities which invite the spirit, or in which you will have to learn quickly to recognize his promptings (exchanges with the missionaries are a good start).


Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a principle of action and of power.

“Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught that ‘there is no simple formula or technique that would immediately allow [us] to master the ability to be guided by the voice of the Spirit.’ Rather, ‘our Father expects [us] to learn how to obtain that divine help by exercising faith in Him and His Holy Son, Jesus Christ.’” (David M. McConkie, “Learning to Hear and Understand the Spirit,” Ensign, February 2011, lds.org).

Sometimes even those who earnestly seek righteousness, and genuinely desire to know the will of the Lord can find themselves falling into the mistaken notion that nothing can be done in life without first receiving revelation or some kind of spiritual direction.

“Sometimes…in the Church, we believe that ‘I have to receive a revelation, I have to know it's a revelation, and I'm not going to do anything until that happens.’” (David A. Bednar, Face to Face with Elder and Sister Bednar, March 4, 2017, lds.org).

However, in this instance, we have it backwards. In the gospel, faith generally comes first.  Sometimes we are required to step forward in faith, not knowing beforehand the specifics of how to accomplish a thing, before we receive a witness from the Lord. In other words, we cannot expect the Lord to bless us with power, unless we are willing to first take action.

“The Savior taught, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” Sometimes we try to do it backward. For example, we may take this approach: I will be happy to live the law of tithing, but first I need to know that it’s true. Maybe we even pray to gain a testimony of the law of tithing and hope the Lord will bless us with that testimony before we have ever filled out a tithing slip. It just doesn’t work that way. The Lord expects us to exercise faith. We have to consistently pay a full and honest tithe in order to gain a testimony of tithing. This same pattern applies to all the principles of the gospel, whether it is the law of chastity, the principle of modesty, the Word of Wisdom, or the law of the fast.”  (Bonnie L. Oscarson, “Be Ye Converted,” Ensign, Nov. 2013, 77).

Faith comes first.  We can’t afford to wait until we have a perfect knowledge before we are willing to take a chance on obeying some difficult principle.  You cannot to gain a testimony of any principle which you are not first willing to obey.  Why is it reasonable to suppose that the Lord will bless you with the guidance of His spirit, if you are not willing to risk obeying him without first being explicitly instructed by the spirit?  That has never been the order by which the Holy Ghost has manifested the truth to God’s children.

"When you are trying to verify the truth of gospel principles, you must first live them. Put gospel doctrine and Church teachings to the test in your own life. Do it with real intent and enduring faith in God.

If you will do these things, you have a promise from God—who is bound by His word—that He will manifest the truth to you by the power of the Holy Ghost. He will grant you greater light that will allow you to look through the darkness and witness unimaginably glorious vistas incomprehensible to mortal sight.”  (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth,” Ensign, November 2014, 21).

Moroni’s promise extends to more than just those who seek to know if the Book of Mormon is true or not.  In principle, this well-known passage contains fairly detailed instructions by which we can obtain revelation through the spirit on many important questions of the soul.

Moroni 10:4-5  And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.  And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.


Don’t Forget to Pray

If you are looking for guidance from the Lord through the Holy Ghost, it seems too obvious to tell you to remember to pray.  However, Satan knows that all he has to do is to keep you from asking, and he’ll never have to worry about you seeking, or knocking.  If Satan can disrupt this most basic form of divine communication in your life, the he will have a much easier time leading you astray.

Accordingly, I feel it is vital to remind you about the value and importance of prayer when it comes to obtaining and recognizing the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

2 Nephi 32:8-9  And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. 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 ye 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 thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.

Asking, Seeking, and Knocking

Revelation requires work on our part.  This is not a popular truth.  Many suppose that all they have to do is to ask a casual question, and then they are disappointed when angels do not appear with trumpets to declare some truth to them, which they only idly sought.

The Lord chastised Oliver Cowdery for approaching Him with just this attitude in D&C 9:7: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.”

It is true that the scripture says, “Ask, and it shall be given you;” but it also says, “seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (see Matthew 7:7-8).  Asking, seeking and knocking are principles of work, action, and power.

“Asking, seeking, and knocking are active components of prayerful inquiry and denote initiating, engaging anxiously, pressing forward steadfastly, and acting.  These three interrelated and overlapping elements of inquiring are vital elements in the pattern the Lord has employed when giving direction, instruction, and revelation.  Honesty, effort, commitment, and persistence are required in asking, seeking, and knocking.” (David A. Bednar, Increase In Learning, 106).

The Lord taught the people of Israel this principle, through the prophet Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 29:12-13 Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.

True seeking requires one to search with all their heart.  Part of this involves the sincere heart and true intent mentioned by Moroni above, but it also requires discipline and diligence on our part if we truly seek to be taught by the Lord.  The prophet Alma instructed his people concerning what is required in order to obtain this kind of knowledge:

Alma 5:45-47  And this is not all. Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself? Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me. And moreover, I say unto you that it has thus been revealed unto me, that the words which have been spoken by our fathers are true, even so according to the spirit of prophecy which is in me, which is also by the manifestation of the Spirit of God.

The discipline that is required of those who seek to be made disciples of Christ includes principles of action such as fasting and praying. Alma did not gain the spirit of revelation, and the spirit of prophecy out of casual or passing interest.  He did not idly ask for a sign, without supposing that anything might be required on his part in order to receive a witness.

A Standard by Which We Can Judge

In certain Christian traditions, the principles of prayer, fasting, meditation, and scripture study are referred to as ‘the disciplines.”  I suspect this is because these principles are important ways by which we can train our hearts, our minds, and our habits in order to become more perfect disciples of Jesus Christ. I tend to refer to them as “the three pillars of personal testimony,” but you might also think of them as “the three pillars of spiritual worthiness.”

"Humble prayer to our Heavenly Father, with deep faith in Jesus Christ, is essential to qualify us for the companionship of the Holy Ghost…Our humility and our faith that invite spiritual gifts are increased by our reading, studying, and pondering the scriptures. We have all heard those words. Yet we may read a few lines or pages of scripture every day and hope that will be enough.  But reading, studying, and pondering are not the same. We read words and we may get ideas. We study and we may discover patterns and connections in scripture. But when we ponder, we invite revelation by the Spirit. Pondering, to me, is the thinking and the praying I do after reading and studying in the scriptures carefully."  (Henry B. Eyring, "Serve with the Spirit," Ensign, Nov 2010, 60).

"If there are any of the essential ordinances yet to be performed in your life, intently prepare to receive each of them. Then we need to establish the discipline to live faithful to our covenants, fully using the weekly gift of the sacrament. Many of us are not being regularly changed by its cleansing power because of our lack of reverence for this holy ordinance."  (Donald L. Hallstrom, "Converted to His Gospel through His Church," Ensign, May 2012, 13).

The disciplines of prayer, scripture study and pondering, and making full use of “the weekly gift of the sacrament” are all essential components in our quest for spiritual knowledge.  In fact, as we make and renew our covenants during the sacrament, the Lord explicitly promises us that we will “always have his Spirit to be with” us, if we in will “always remember Him and keep his commandments which he has given us.”

You should not expect to be taught by the Lord, through the Spirit, if you are neglecting these principles in your life.  These three pillars of spiritual worthiness are absolutely indispensable in coming to recognize the voice and direction of the Holy Ghost.

The disciplines are also powerful tools which you and I can use in order to discern right from wrong, truth from error, and even right from almost right.  When you want to know how to recognize whether a prompting comes from God or not, you are not left entirely to your own devices.

“You have some standards to measure by. You have the teachings of the gospel. You have the scriptures. You have the words of the Brethren. You've got a backdrop to measure some impressions and your truths by.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Face to Face for YSA: with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Sister Carole M. Stephens, and Elder Donald L. Hallstrom, lds.org, March 8, 2016).


Study It Out

Part of the work of asking, seeking, and knocking that is required in order to receive revelation involves careful study and thought.

D&C 9:7-8 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that 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.

The scriptures and the teachings of church leaders are an excellent resource which you can turn to in order to “study it out” in your quest for answers.

It is my opinion that the Lord commands us to study things out because, in many cases, He has already addressed a question very much like our own at least once before, and it is more than likely that it has been recorded in scripture somewhere.  It therefore falls to us to search it out for ourselves.

I am also convinced that the scriptures have an added value in helping us to learn to recognize the voice of the Lord in our lives, because they contain his words, and the best way to become familiar with his voice is to become familiar with His words and His teachings as they are recorded in scripture.

“Elder David A. Bednar said, “The scriptures, in essence, are a written ‘recording’ of the voice of the Lord—a voice we feel in our hearts more than we hear with our ears. And as we study the content and feel the spirit of the written word of God, we learn to hear His voice in the words we read and to understand the means whereby the words are given to us by the Holy Ghost. ‘These words are not of men nor of man, but of me…For it is my voice which speaketh them unto you; for they are given by my Spirit unto you…Wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words.’ (D & C 18:34–36)” (Ned C. Hill, “Hearing the Voice of the Spirit,” Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional, March 11, 2008, http://www2.byui.edu).

“If the language of the scriptures at first seems strange to you, keep reading. Soon you will come to recognize the beauty and power found on those pages.”  (Boyd K. Packer, “The Key to Spiritual Protection,” Ensign, Nov. 2013, 27).

Don’t be lazy.  The scriptures are an incredible blessing from the Lord, one which has come to us at great cost.  Don’t let your scriptures collect dust on your shelf just because you aren’t willing to put the work into studying them that is required if you wish to unlock the incredible guidance, and understanding, and blessings contained within them.

2 Nephi 32:7  And now I, Nephi, cannot say more; the Spirit stoppeth mine utterance, and I am left to mourn because of the unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be.

Image credit: Dnalor_01, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0
The Gift of Discernment

Unfortunately, questions of choice and morality that seem so clear cut while we are sitting in Sunday School are almost never so clear cut out there in the real world.  We may occasionally feel inclined to do something that does not appear overtly wrong, or at variance with the gospel, but which may lead us gently away from the Lord.  Satan doesn’t always have to tempt us to sin outright.  Sometimes he can accomplish much simply by distracting us from the most important things.

“Satan doesn’t have to tempt us to do bad things. He can accomplish much of his objective by distracting us with many acceptable things, thus keeping us from accomplishing the essential ones. We need to frustrate that distraction by identifying what is critically important in our lives. We must give the cream of our effort to accomplish those things. Where there is limited time or resources, this pattern may require that some good activities must be set aside.”  (Richard G. Scott, “To Learn and to Teach More Effectively,” Brigham Young University 2007-2008 Speeches, 21 August 2007).

Satan is good at creating enough fog and confusion to make it difficult to tell the right path from the wrong ones.  In real life, it takes great discernment to navigate right from wrong, because life is not always black and white.  It is not always enough to look for the right and wrong of a question.  Sometimes, you need to be able to discern right from almost right, or “the important from the unimportant.”  More often than not, we must be able to navigate “life's gray zones of choices.”  In order to find the right path, and to stay on it once we have found it, we depend on the aid and direction of the Holy Ghost.  In particular, we need the spiritual gift of discernment.

"Discernment is so much more than recognizing right from wrong. It helps us distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, the important from the unimportant, and the necessary from that which is merely nice" (David A. Bednar, "Quick to Observe," Ensign, Dec. 2006).

"As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best. Even though a particular choice is more costly, its far greater value may make it the best choice of all" (Dallin H. Oaks, “Good, Better, Best,” Ensign, Nov. 2007).

"The Holy Ghost...can thus help us both in the defining moments as well as in what might be called life's gray zones of choices.  Our decisions after all, are not such contests as the choice between whether we will rob a bank or hold family home evening.  At times we must choose among good options, "A1" and "A2."  But we need help in order to attend to the "weightier matters" and do the things of most worth" (Neal A. Maxwell, The Promise of Discipleship, 105).

Practice Makes Perfect

The best way to develop a relationship with the Spirit is to listen to Him, and to follow what He tells you.  If you are having trouble recognizing his voice, just start small.  Do the things you know will invite the presence of the Holy Ghost, and avoid things that might offend him.  After all, the Holy Ghost is a gentle guest, and you don’t want to make him feel unwelcome.

Naturally, sin and disobedience to the Lord’s commandments are offensive to the spirit, but there are other things to avoid if you wish to make the Holy Ghost your companion.

"There are some practical principles that enhance revelation. First, yielding to emotions such as anger or hurt or defensiveness will drive away the Holy Ghost. Those emotions must be eliminated, or our chance for receiving revelation is slight.  Another principle is to be cautious with humor. Loud, inappropriate laughter will offend the Spirit. A good sense of humor helps revelation; loud laughter does not. A sense of humor is an escape valve for the pressures of life.  Another enemy to revelation comes from exaggeration or loudness in what is stated. Careful, quiet speech will favor the receipt of revelation."  (Richard G. Scott, "How to Obtain Revelation and Inspiration for Your Personal Life," Ensign, May 2012).

In addition, it would be wise to get rid of unnecessary distractions, such as the blaring of the television, or of loud music.  Turn off the video games too.  If you want to hear the still, small voice, it seems reasonable to seek stillness and quietness in your environment.

"In silence and in stillness a devout soul profiteth, and learneth the hidden things of the scriptures." (Thomas Hammerken, The Imitation of Christ, 34).

You should also seek to quiet your mind and heart in order that you might be more receptive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. As Elder Scott mentioned, avoid yielding to anger, or other negative emotions that might drive away the spirit.  Find a time to set aside the worries and cares of the day, which might distract from a conversation with the Holy Ghost.  Always keep your thoughts virtuous and clean.


Disciplining your thoughts tends to be easier if you are healthy, and if you manage to get enough sleep.  In every way you should be as alert and prepared as possible if you want to be sensitive to the subtle promptings and inspiration that come through the Spirit.

"Spiritual communication can be enhanced by good health practices. Exercise, reasonable amounts of sleep, and good eating habits increase our capacity to receive and understand revelation. We will live for our appointed life span. However, we can improve both the quality of our service and our well-being by making careful, appropriate choices."  (Richard G. Scott, "How to Obtain Revelation and Inspiration for Your Personal Life," Ensign, May 2012).

"We must diligently search into, and set in order both the outward and the inner man, because both of them are of importance to our progress in godliness."  (Thomas Hammerken, The Imitation of Christ, 31).

Don’t expect to develop a relationship with the Holy Ghost overnight.  Like any relationship, it takes time, care, and effort to truly cultivate a friendship and a familiarity with the Spirit.  In the meantime, don’t let yourself get discouraged, and don’t give up!  It may seem difficult, but I promise that a deep relationship with the Holy Ghost is worth it!

“Elder Scott [taught]: ‘What may appear initially to be a daunting task will be much easier to manage over time as you consistently strive to recognize and follow feelings prompted by the Spirit. Your confidence in the direction you receive from the Holy Ghost will also become stronger,’ and ‘your confidence in the impressions you feel can become more certain than your dependence on what you see or hear.’” (David M. McConkie, “Learning to Hear and Understand the Spirit,” Ensign, February 2011, lds.org).

As C. S. Lewis once said, even attempted virtue brings added light. (Mere Christianity, 102).  Developing a relationship with the spirit, and learning to receive revelation is generally less like flipping a light switch, and more like experiencing a sunrise.

“I invite you to consider two experiences most of us have had with light. The first experience occurred as we entered a dark room and turned on a light switch. Remember how in an instant a bright flood of illumination filled the room and caused the darkness to disappear. What previously had been unseen and uncertain became clear and recognizable. This experience was characterized by immediate and intense recognition of light.

The second experience took place as we watched night turn into morning. Do you recall the slow and almost imperceptible increase in light on the horizon? In contrast to turning on a light in a dark room, the light from the rising sun did not immediately burst forth. Rather, gradually and steadily the intensity of the light increased, and the darkness of night was replaced by the radiance of morning. Eventually, the sun did dawn over the skyline. But the visual evidence of the sun’s impending arrival was apparent hours before the sun actually appeared over the horizon. This experience was characterized by subtle and gradual discernment of light.  From these two ordinary experiences with light, we can learn much about the spirit of revelation.

…Some revelations are received immediately and intensely; some are recognized gradually and subtly. The two experiences with light I described help us to better understand these two basic patterns of revelation.

A light turned on in a dark room is like receiving a message from God quickly, completely, and all at once. Many of us have experienced this pattern of revelation as we have been given answers to sincere prayers or been provided with needed direction or protection, according to God’s will and timing. Descriptions of such immediate and intense manifestations are found in the scriptures, recounted in Church history, and evidenced in our own lives. Indeed, these mighty miracles do occur. However, this pattern of revelation tends to be more rare than common.

The gradual increase of light radiating from the rising sun is like receiving a message from God “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30). Most frequently, revelation comes in small increments over time and is granted according to our desire, worthiness, and preparation. Such communications from Heavenly Father gradually and gently “distil upon [our souls] as the dews from heaven” (D&C 121:45). (David A Bednar, “The Spirit of Revelation,” Ensign, May 2011, lds.org).

As you begin to exercise your agency to obey the promptings of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost will start to trust you with more direction, and more revelation. As the spirit begins to open your eyes, you will find it easier to recognize his promptings and directions.  As you begin to be able to better recognize His promptings, you will begin to notice the direction of the Holy Ghost in many aspects of your life which went unnoticed before.  Soon, “the way to judge [will be] as plain…as the daylight is from the dark night.” (see Moroni 7:15).


Hearing the Voice of the Good Shepherd

You and I need to come to know the voice of the Lord, especially as it is communicated through His spirit, because even now our spiritual survival may depend on it.  How can you hope to gain a testimony of the truth of some principle, or of the divine commission of a living prophet of God if you have not learned to recognize the voice and direction of the Lord?  If you can’t recognize the voice of the spirit now, how can you expect to recognize it when it really matters?

Alma 5:38  Behold, I say unto you, that the good shepherd doth call you; yea, and in his own name he doth call you, which is the name of Christ; and if ye will not hearken unto the voice of the good shepherd, to the name by which ye are called, behold, ye are not the sheep of the good shepherd.

Mosiah 5:12-13  I say unto you, I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts, that ye are not found on the left hand of God, but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also, the name by which he shall call you.  For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?

Part of the reason why it is so crucial to learn to love and understand the scriptures is so that you can learn to love and value the things of the Lord, and the things which He loves and values.  If you don’t bother to give much thought or care to “churchy things” on any day except Sunday, you will find it much more difficult to hear and recognize the voice of the spirit.  You may find that you are a stranger to him, and that you have allowed yourself to stray “far from the thoughts and intents of his heart.”


The Mind of Christ

If you are worried about being able to tell the difference between the promptings of the Holy Ghost and your own desires, the best solution would be to do everything you can to make sure the is no difference between the two!

If you can become so converted that you want what the Lord wants, and care for only those things for which the Lord cares, you won’t have to worry about leading yourself astray.  The things of the Spirit will be opened to you, once you rid yourself of the interference that comes from seeking your own interests and desires outside of God.

1 Corinthians 2:9-13, 16  But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.  But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.  For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? but we have the mind of Christ.

Another way to describe the process required in order to reach this point would be to “put off the natural man.”

Why is the natural man such a problem?  Because, when we value our own lusts and worldly interests over the will of God, not only does it make it almost impossible to hear and recognize that voice of the Spirit, but by indulging our natural man we essentially make ourselves enemies to God.  As such, the things of the spirit will appear as foolishness to us, and any connection we may have had with God through the spirit will soon dwindle and die.

1 Corinthians 2:14  But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

If we truly seek to be taught from on high, we have to learn to put off the natural man.  We have to rid ourselves of our worldly lusts, and of our pride.  If we want to receive direction from the Lord, we have to become humble and submissive enough to allow ourselves to be directed by Him in all things.

What I am describing represents a process of conversion which will no doubt consist of a lifetime of careful devotion and work, but the trick is to start now.  This process starts simply, with the principles of faith and repentance.

Alma 26:21-22  And now behold, my brethren, what natural man is there that knoweth these things? I say unto you, there is none that knoweth these things, save it be the penitent.  Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls to repentance, even as it has been given unto us to bring these our brethren to repentance.

Mosiah 3:19  For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

The Power of the Spirit

When you do receive a witness from the Holy Ghost, it ought to be unmistakable.  If it isn’t then something is wrong, and you ought to look for ways to become more receptive to (and more experienced with) the promptings and revelation that come through the Holy Ghost.

The Holy Ghost is a member of the Godhead.  His role is to testify of the truth in all things.

Jacob 4:13  Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old.

In particular, the role of the Holy Ghost is to bear a unique witness of the other members of the Godhead, as the Savior taught in 3 Nephi 28:11: “And the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and the Father giveth the Holy Ghost unto the children of men, because of me.”

There is a special power that comes only in and through the witness and testimony of the Holy Ghost.

“When a man has the manifestation from the Holy Ghost, it leaves an indelible impression on his soul, one that is not easily erased. It is Spirit speaking to spirit, and it comes with convincing force. A manifestation of an angel, or even of the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. (1958), 2:151)

“The spirit of God speaking to the spirit of man has power to impart truth with greater effect and understanding than the truth can be imparted by personal contact even with heavenly beings. Through the Holy Ghost the truth is woven into the very fibre and sinews of the body so it cannot be forgotten.”  (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, ed. Bruce R. Mckonkie, 3 vols. (1954-1956), 1:48)

When someone asks me for proof of what I believe, the only meaningful answer I can give is that the Spirit told me it was true.  I know this may sound trite, or too easy, but it is nevertheless true.  I have learned certain truths about the Savior and His atonement, and the power of His gospel, as well as the veracity and reliability of the holy scriptures, and the role of His church (and His prophet) on the Earth today that I only know because I obtained that knowledge through the spirit.  My testimony may seem like foolishness to some, but I know that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man” the things which I have learned through the spirit.

You too can have this knowledge, if you are willing to put in the work of asking, seeking, and knocking.  If you will exercise the discipline required to seek wisdom by study, and also by faith, through constant prayer, consistent scripture study, and by making full use of the weekly gift of the sacrament, you will quickly learn to better hear and recognize the voice and direction of the Lord, as it is communicated to you through the Holy Ghost.

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