On a spring evening in 1977, I learned a marvelous lesson about teaching by the Spirit. I was serving in West Berlin, Germany, and was working that day with Elder Selman, a missionary in my district. We had an appointment to teach the second discussion to the Ortlepps, a couple my companion and I had met while tracting. They had listened politely to the first discussion about Joseph Smith and the Restoration and had accepted our offer to teach them about the plan of salvation, even though we could tell they were not seriously interested.
When we knocked on their door, they invited us in, and the four of us took seats around their kitchen table. After engaging in some small talk, we opened with prayer. Back in the 1970s missionaries still memorized the discussions and presented them pretty much verbatim, and since I had been in the mission field for nearly two years, I knew them very well. In fact, when I would present the various concepts I could see the pages of the discussion book in my mind and would mentally turn the pages as I taught.
But on this particular evening the Lord had something different prepared for Herr and Frau Ortlepp. As I opened my mouth to speak, the Spirit took charge. It was as if the Lord reached out His hand and simply closed the discussion book in my mind. And as the book closed, a conduit opened—a spiritual connection between me and the Ortlepps. I somehow knew what they were thinking. I knew the questions they wanted to ask before they even had a chance to ask them. And using my voice, the Spirit gave them the answers they desired. I felt like a spectator as my voice taught them concepts I had never before understood. I knew without a doubt that the words I spoke specifically answered the questions and doubts they harbored in their hearts. A sweet spirit filled the room, and the Ortlepps were visibly moved.
Afterward, as Elder Selman and I walked back to the subway station, I felt as if I were descending through clouds until my feet once more touched the earth. And as the experience faded, so did my memory of what had been taught. By the time we reached the station, all I could remember was that the Spirit had taught them something about developing faith and planting seeds and reaping a harvest. I knew the Lord had pleaded with them to plant a seed in their own hearts, but I could no more have repeated the insights the Spirit shared with the Ortlepps than I could have torn down the Berlin Wall with my bare hands.
Elder Selman commented on what a wonderful experience it had been. And I pondered the sincere comment Herr Ortlepp had made as we left their house: “Before you came I had decided I wasn’t going to invite you back again, but what was taught this evening touched me deeply.” He did invite us back. And although they didn’t join the Church at that time, I knew that for some reason the Lord had reached out in a special way to this family.
I’ve thought about this incident many times since that day. I’ve heard of missionaries who experience such teaching moments often, but for me it was a singular experience. I came to know that day how personally the Lord knows us, how precisely he can tailor a message to the needs of the hearers—if the teacher is in tune. I learned that evening that there is a difference between teaching true doctrine that the Spirit then confirms and having the Spirit actually use your mouth to teach truths that the listeners specifically need.
The Lord promised Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon such teaching moments:
“Therefore, verily I say unto you, lift up your voices unto this people; speak the thoughts that I shall put into your hearts, and you shall not be confounded before men;
“For it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what ye shall say” (D&C 100:5–6).
He also gave Joseph and six elders who had just returned from their missions this instruction:
“Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85).
President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988) once said, “I always know when I am speaking under the influence of the Holy Ghost because I always learn something from what I have said.”1 I know this is true. I know from my experience with the Ortlepps and from other less extraordinary experiences that we can teach by the Spirit. We can draw on the Spirit of God to enlighten our minds, to help us understand our listeners’ needs, and to give them the message the Lord wants them to hear.