We’ve probably all felt it, whether it was as we taught a Primary class, disciplined our children, or discussed a problem with our husband or wife—that sudden, irrepressible irritation sometimes flaring into anger. And we may have let our tongues expose our exasperation, excusing our passions under the guise of “reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost” (D&C 121:43). But at such times of emotion, how can we be sure that our feelings are really expressions of the Spirit and not just adrenalin generated by our anger?
It is often difficult to know. I would say, though, that in most cases we are not moved upon by the Holy Ghost if we experience any or all of the following:
1. We shout.
2. We use swear words in our rebuke.
3. Feelings of hatred or discord for another person well up within us.
4. We seek to harm the other person (including our children) by tearing down his or her self-esteem.
5. We feel we don’t care what impact our words have on the other person.
6. We are just venting our frustration about something that is totally unrelated to the person or event.
On the other hand, we may be more certain that the Holy Ghost moves upon us when—
1. The intensity of the reproof is appropriate to the cause. When Joseph Smith rebuked the guards in Liberty Jail, the intensity of his rebuke was justified by the filthy language of his guards, who had profaned the sacred name of two divine beings. The same was true of the Savior’s expelling the money changers from the holy temple; their blasphemy and sacrilege evoked an intense response. However, a four-year-old Primary child with muddy feet deserves more long-suffering and gentleness.
2. The message is painful to the messenger, as well as to the recipient. In other words, we aren’t overly anxious to “unload” on someone. Many a parent, prior to spanking a child, informs him: “This is going to hurt me worse than it will you.” These feelings should also apply to verbal reproof. In fact, if our reproof has been preceded “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge” (D&C 121:41–2), physical or verbal abuse will be highly unlikely.
3. We reprove promptly, without harboring ill will. When the Holy Ghost motivates us to reprove someone, the reproof comes before we have had undue time to harbor bad feelings for an extended period. The dictionary definition of betimes includes reference to promptness, “before it is too late.” If we are moved upon by the Holy Ghost, we will make an effort to forthrightly reconcile differences and establish a more open, trusting relationship.
4. We follow our reproof with “an increase of love.” This love should not be feigned; and it should be forthcoming on the heels of the reproof, not after several hours or days of the “cold shoulder” or silent treatment. This reassurance should be repeated often so that the reproof will not become a barrier to a continuing relationship.
5. We weigh our words—and our feelings—carefully. We know all the facts so that we can speak with “pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” (D&C 121:42.) We don’t seek to harm, to stretch the truth, or to overstate the problem. Our objective is to sincerely help the other person and address the specific issue at hand. We don’t make him feel inferior.
6. We are, and have been, in tune with the Spirit prior to the reproof. Parents who interrupt their own heated argument to reprove their children for a house in disarray are, in all probability, not being moved upon by the Holy Ghost.
7. We prepare for the reproof with preliminary prayer whenever possible. On one occasion I was called to counsel with a family in trouble. The father had inflicted physical punishment on his wife and children. Several hours before we met together, I thought about what I should tell them. I fully intended to begin my remarks to this unkind husband with the spirit of “Ye fiend of the eternal pit”; but the night I met them, I heard myself saying, “Fred, I love you, and I love your wife and family. I’d like to help you build an eternal home.” He was no longer defensive. His wife was no longer interested in finding fault. They were anxious to make new commitments and forget an unpleasant past history. They were teachable and amenable to some very pointed counsel.
8. After the reproof, we feel at peace with ourselves. If we are truly moved upon by the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost will prompt us regarding what we should say and how we should say it. After it has been said, we need have no regrets or second thoughts regarding what should have been said or left unsaid.