Helping Youth Follow the Spirit


We can help youth recognize promptings from the Holy Ghost and seek his help when they need it.

Helping Youth Follow the Spirit

The letter was disturbing. And it seemed urgent. “You probably don’t remember me, but I met you last summer at our youth conference,” the young woman wrote. Now she was away at college. “I have met this really nice guy. As our relationship has grown, he has become more physical.” She was wavering in her commitment to remain morally clean. Why not, she asked, give in to their desires?

She needed answers—quickly. Since I was not her priesthood leader, I wrote her a letter in which I urged her to talk with him. I gave her scriptural reasons and quotations from Church leaders explaining why we should remain chaste. And after I mailed the letter, I hoped that it would make a difference and that the training she had received in her home would guide her.

I eagerly opened her reply when it came. “Brother Wilcox, where are you? I wrote you because I had a problem and I didn’t know where else to turn. Why haven’t you written?” My young friend obviously had not received my letter. I panicked, afraid of what I might see next. But no, she had not given in. “I did come very close. But in that moment, I knew it wasn’t right, because I wasn’t comfortable. So I got myself out of it.”

I felt relieved, thankful, and happy. This young woman had not needed the letter. She had made the right choice without reading even one of the quotes, examples, or stories. All she had needed was what she had been given when she was eight years old—the gift of the Holy Ghost.

The First Presidency has written: “When you were confirmed a member of the Church, you received the right to the companionship of the Holy Ghost. He can help you make good choices. When challenged or tempted, you do not need to feel alone. The Holy Ghost will help you know right from wrong.” (For the Strength of Youth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, p. 17.)

I had tried to guide this young woman, to teach her, to make a difference in her life, without remembering that it is the Spirit who really does those things. (See John 14:26; John 16:13; Mosiah 5:2; D&C 6:15; D&C 11:12.) The role of parents and leaders is somewhat limited. At best, they can only help young people learn how to receive, recognize, and respond to the help of the Spirit.

Helping Them Receive the Spirit

“You can no more force the Spirit to respond,” said Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve, “than you can force a bean to sprout, or an egg to hatch before its time. You can create a climate to foster growth, nourish, and protect; but you cannot force or compel: you must await the growth.” (Ensign, Jan. 1983, p. 53.) As parents, we can help create a spiritual climate with prayers, scripture study, and positive environments.

Prayers. Alma the Elder would be one of the first to remind us that praying for our young people is not a meaningless ritual or another item to check off a list. (See Mosiah 27:14.) We must pray for our youth and with our youth.

Elder Gene R. Cook shared this story of an experience with a teenage son who had generated some conflict in the family:

“I took him in my bedroom, shut and locked the door, and knelt down. He knelt down as well, still mad. I did my best to offer a prayer for my boy. ‘Heavenly Father, bless him. He’s hurting today. He’s had some problems with the family. He didn’t study for these tests he’s got today as much as he should have and he’s worried.’ And I expressed my love to him the best I could in the prayer. … In a matter of a minute or so, his heart was very humbled. As soon as the ‘amen’ was uttered, he said, ‘Dad, let me pray.’ And in his prayer he asked forgiveness of the Lord. … With the ‘amen’ of that prayer, a father and a son embraced one another. … The love between the two of us was enriched a hundredfold.” (“Teaching by the Spirit,” unpublished address given at Church Educational System Seminary and Institute Meeting, 30 June 1989, pp. 5–6).

Scripture Study. One family found that regular scripture reading had touched their family in a way they had not realized. “‘We thought that our children only tolerated our scripture reading in the morning because I gave them treats if they came on time,’ says Betty Martinsen of Arlington, Texas. ‘But one day, after missing our scripture time for a couple of days, the children were unusually quarrelsome in the car as they came home from school. From the back seat, our five-year-old piped up, “We need to start reading the Book of Mormon again, Mom. Everybody is fighting too much.”’” (Ensign, June 1991, p. 22.)

Positive Environments. We must help make sure that young people are touched by positive influences. For example, we may offer them heroes in the scriptures or among the leaders of the Church; pictures in our homes of the Savior or temples or scriptural scenes; and regular, enjoyable family home evenings. We could encourage expanded friendships and group activities with young people who are strong in the gospel. We might offer priesthood blessings, uplifting music, and opportunities for work and service. We can provide the New Era and other youth-oriented Church publications, and encourage youth to read them. We should strongly urge young people to enroll in seminary and to attend youth conferences or other Church group activities—even if it means dropping another class or having to make special arrangements to get off work. I have heard many a grateful and tearful testimony begin with the words, “I wasn’t even going to come, but my parents and leaders talked me into it.”

Helping Them Recognize the Spirit

Young people sometimes ask, “Is it the Spirit I feel, or am I just in a good mood? Am I being prompted, or are my thoughts simply getting away from me?” Adults can help them learn to recognize the Spirit by helping them learn to focus on their deep-down feelings, share personal experiences, and testify of the truth.

Focusing on Deep-Down Feelings. When one Latter-day Saint football player turned in his equipment at the end of the high school season, his coach, amid the confusion, counted out an extra dollar of refund money. Out in the hall, the young man—we’ll call him Jack—counted the money again. Sure enough, there was an extra dollar.

Did he go back into the coach’s office and return it?

“No. I put it in my pocket.”

“What? Didn’t you feel guilty?”

“No,” he said, “I felt lucky, like when the phone gives you your quarter back.”

“But deep down, didn’t you feel guilty?”

“No. It was just a dollar.”

“Deep down—deep down, didn’t you feel guilty?”

Finally, he admitted grudgingly, “Yes, I knew what I should do. But we’re not talking about Sunday School here; we’re talking real life.” Jack was becoming irritated. “The coach already thinks I’m too much of a goody-goody. What fool is going to go running into his office like Sammy Seminary and give the dollar back? Get real!”

The last thing Jack wanted was to look like some wimpy religious weirdo to his coach. But still, the deep-down feelings were there.

The following day Jack returned the dollar. He did it because the Spirit told him that despite all his rationalization, he was doing wrong. And he recognized that still, small voice. (Incidentally, Jack learned that he had been set up. His coach knew his religious beliefs and deliberately gave him the extra dollar to prove to the assistant coach that Jack wouldn’t keep it.)

Elder Packer has said, “We often try to solve guilt problems by telling one another that they don’t matter. But somehow, deep inside, we … know better.” (Ensign, May 1977, p. 56; italics added.) And the First Presidency has declared, “You cannot do wrong and feel right. It is impossible!” (For the Strength of Youth, p. 4.)

Sharing Experiences. Nothing reaches and teaches more effectively than personal experiences. As we honestly share our memories, feelings, struggles, and growth with young people, they can relate to us, and the lessons we are trying to teach become more meaningful.

Testifying. We must bear our testimonies often—and not just in Church meetings. That way, we can offer young people a support on which they can lean until they are ready to stand alone. It is true that one cannot live on borrowed light. However, sometimes it is only in the glow of borrowed light that we can see clearly enough to kindle our own lamps.

One young missionary recalled: “My dad always told us how much he loved the Savior and the Church. He told us of his love for the Book of Mormon and the living prophets so often that my family sometimes teased him about it.” But after a few days away from home, when the young man was feeling discouraged and disoriented, “My father’s testimony came back to my mind over and over. I felt the Spirit, and I knew that if my dad could know these things with such surety, then so could I.”

As surely as Enos, that young missionary could say, “And the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.” (Enos 1:3.)

Helping Them Respond to the Spirit

Because agency is one of our God-given gifts, each individual must choose whether to respond to promptings of the Spirit. However, we can help young people make the right choice if we express love and clear expectations to them and if we care, challenge them, and never give up.

Express Love and Clear Expectations. Our love, standards, and expectations must be stated clearly to young people. We would do well to follow the example of the First Presidency, who wrote to youth: “We want you to know that we love you. We have great confidence in you. Because of that, we talk to you frankly and honestly.” (For the Strength of Youth, p. 3.)

Care. One young woman, from a family who were active in the Church, told of a time in her life when “I wanted to make my own decisions and not just do everything because I’m my parents’ daughter. So, I really let loose.”

One night she came home from being with her friends and doing some things that she knew were wrong. Her father “just looked me right in the eyes, and I knew he wasn’t thinking, ‘Can’t you see what you are doing to me?’ It was more like, ‘Can’t you see what you are doing to you?’ That’s all I could think about the whole week. I knew I was making my parents unhappy. But now, I realized I was making myself unhappy, too. I was trying to live one way when I really knew that another way was right.”

Her father’s sincere love and care were more effective than any lecture or preaching he could have offered.

Challenge Young People. Young people are fully capable of rising to spiritual challenges.

A stake that had taken its young people to an amusement park and lodged them in a luxury hotel for youth conference one year had an interesting experience when youth leaders tried a different type of activity twelve months later. Following the counsel of Church leaders, they focused on true joy by planning spiritual workshops and a service project for their young people.

The testimony meeting at the end of the youth conference was far different from the one a year earlier; at the earlier one, a local leader said, “Most of the youth just sat there giggling and poking each other.”

But this time, the young people were eager to express their joy at having served others and their love for Jesus Christ.

Never Give Up. One mother tearfully expressed her concern that even though she was doing all in her power to help her struggling teens, they still were making wrong choices.

In cases like this, all a parent can do is hang in and hang on. While we are all aware that no success in life can compensate for failure in the home, we must also remember that sometimes even the greatest diligence in doing our part is insufficient—at least temporarily—against the effects of others’ agency. Children sometimes make unwise choices, and at those times perhaps we can only pray for them, have faith in their ability to change, keep loving them, and hang on.

Prepared to Hear

“I knew it wasn’t right because I wasn’t comfortable.” That was the young woman’s answer. When temptation came, no other source of help could have been as effective as the voice of the Spirit. She was able to recognize it and respond properly. That is the kind of spiritual ability we want for all of the young people born to us or entrusted to our leadership.

As parents, we have many ways to help young people learn to rely on the Holy Ghost. But perhaps the best way is to learn to know the voice of the Spirit very well for ourselves. Then it will guide us as we try to help young people develop this precious gift—the ability to know and respond to the voice of the Spirit on their own.

[photos] Photography by John Luke

Brad Wilcox serves as a counselor in the bishopric of the BYU Seventy-seventh Ward, Brigham Young University Fourteenth Stake.