I’ve been praying about a problem, and I’m not sure if I’ve received an answer. How can I tell the promptings of the Spirit from my own thoughts, hopes, and fears?
New Era Answer:
The scene is a familiar one. You kneel down by your bed, and you pray about something that has really been concerning you. You pour out your heart to the Lord, close your prayer, and then you wait for an answer. Thoughts float around in your mind. Are they inspiration, or are they little ghosts from your own imagination? How can you know the difference?
Well, whether you’re in this kind of a setting, or in a more spur-of-the-moment situation, there are guidelines you can use.
First of all, don’t be so afraid of your own thoughts, hopes, and fears. If you’ve considered your problem carefully and honestly, your thoughts will form the basis of a decision which you can take to the Lord for confirmation. And if you’re keeping the commandments and living the way Heavenly Father wants you to, your decision has a good chance of being correct.
Your hopes and fears are harder to judge, because they involve the emotions, which can imitate spiritual insight. They can be righteous hopes and well-founded fears or they can be selfish and destructive. Try to see them for what they are, and then, as always, take your conclusions to the Lord for confirmation.
But what about the thoughts and feelings that come after study and prayer? Well, they’re more likely to be real spiritual insights—but they could still be from your own mind. To be honest, it’s not always easy to tell the difference. Like all skills, recognizing the Spirit requires time and work. It’s a little bit like learning a language. You can understand some very important things after the first lesson, but you will get better with practice.
One way to test the source of your inspiration is to follow a little piece of advice given in Moroni 7:12–13:
“Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually.
“But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.” [Moro. 7:12–13]
Take a long, hard, careful look at the way those promptings you’re receiving will steer you. Are they in agreement with the scriptures and the teachings of the Church? Will they bring you closer to Heavenly Father? Will they help you to help your friends or family? Or is there some potential for harm, physical, spiritual, or otherwise, involved?
But what about when you’re deciding between two things that both “enticeth to do good”? Which class to take, which activity to choose, etc. First, remember that both alternatives may be wrong for you, or both may be equally right, or the decision may be of no particular importance in your life. That said, it’s once again back to the scriptures for an answer. In Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–9, the Lord talks to Oliver Cowdery about receiving inspiration. He says:
“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.
“But 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 9:7–9]
Make a decision based on study and on the promptings you’ve received, and then take it to the Lord. If the decision is right, you’ll feel good about it, and a load will be lifted from your shoulders. If it’s wrong, you’ll usually feel dark and heavy about it, and you’ll know that your promptings came from a source other than the Lord. No one can tell you exactly what you will feel when the Spirit is acting on you. Some speak of a burning in the breast, others of a calm, peaceful feeling. The sensation has been described in many different ways. You will have to learn from experience how the promptings of the Spirit affect you.
Keep in mind also that the Lord doesn’t always answer us quickly. Sometimes he responds only after years of study and prayer. Sometimes he even lets us solve a problem on our own so that we can grow. At such times we must do what seems best to us, while continuing to ask for guidance.
Once you feel that you’ve acted on the promptings of the Spirit, don’t start doubting just because the outcome isn’t exactly what you’d hoped for. That doesn’t necessarily mean you misread the Spirit. If you look, you’ll probably find that you were guided toward greater blessings than what you’d originally hoped for. And the more you follow the Spirit, the stronger your ability to discern its guidance will become.
When you feel the promptings of the Spirit, you will often get a warm and peaceful feeling inside. If you are not sure if the feeling is of the Lord, then kneel down and ask if it is of him. If it is not, you will know if you listen carefully. If the promptings lead you to do good things, then trust in that Spirit. Study the scriptures and pray, and you will come to an understanding of the gospel and the promptings of the Spirit. Trust in the Lord. He wants you to do good things.
Jenefer Fish, 16 Tooele, Utah
As a missionary in the field, I have come across many people with this question. Many of them did not realize that their hopes and even fears were the seeds of a true knowledge and the beginning of a testimony. In Alma 32:27 we read: “Even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of [the gospel of Jesus Christ].” With this desire in your heart, you will come to know the truth of any portion of the plan of our Father in Heaven. I cannot tell you how you will feel, or that it will be soon or late, as it is different in every person’s experience. Let me just tell you what the Savior said: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
Elder Michael Hopper, 20 Washington D.C. North Mission
First of all, try to always keep in tune to the Spirit by saying sincere prayers, along with studying the scriptures daily and being clean in your thoughts and actions. Sometimes spiritual promptings are so strong that it is hard to ignore them. Other times they are very subtle and we’ll miss them if we’re not listening very carefully. Either way, when we think we’ve been prompted by the Spirit, we should act on that prompting unless it is contrary to the commandments, even if the reason is not clear. Have faith; the Lord won’t let you down!
Rachel Larson, 15 Orem, Utah
This is a question that I have asked myself for a long time. As a convert to the Church I have been told and taught that you should always listen to the promptings of the Spirit, but I have never known exactly how to tell whether I am feeling the Spirit or my own desires. Recently I had to make a decision, and I now understand, or rather am learning to understand, what a prompting feels like. Usually, when there is a decision to be made, you have some kind of an idea of what you’d like to do before you ask the Lord for guidance. You still ask, however, because you are unsure and undecided. A prompting from the Spirit alleviates that doubt and brings a feeling of peace. When the Spirit tells you what to do, you will feel a calming feeling, and you will feel more sure about the decision you have made. When you are listening to yourself, however, you will probably still feel a nagging doubt, which means that you need to listen more intently to the Spirit.
Michelle Paradise, 16 Santee, California
I have found that when I take a few minutes to examine my thoughts and they are for an appropriate or good purpose, and when I feel a peaceful, joyful feeling all over, they are of the Spirit. Promptings of the Spirit often come in a still, small voice, while my own desires are a spurt of energy and emotions. I usually evaluate my impressions on this basis before pursuing them.
Robyn Ayala, 15 Folsom, California
I tell them apart by sitting down and reviewing my thoughts, my fears, and dreams. I look at what needs to be done, at things I am doing, and things I plan to do. I see what feelings I get from them. Then I pray about the things I thought about and ask what I should do about them. I look and pray and search for answers in the scriptures or other Church material. I prepare myself for answers. If an idea is right, I receive more ideas along the same line. If one is not right it fades and dies. If I need to know immediately about what decision is right, I pray and ask for help. Then I am comfortable with the decision made and can continue.
Charles Baverstock, 17 Terrace, British Columbia, Canada
The feeling that comes over me when I am being prompted by the Spirit is the most wonderful feeling. When I get that feeling I know that my Father in Heaven loves me and he is watching over me.
Natasha Hastriter, 16 Dixon, Missouri
As you are growing up you always share your innermost feelings with those you are close to. Your parents, teachers, and Church leaders always seem to be there when you need to talk. I’ve learned that you can always turn to these people for answers. Naturally you will always go to the person you believe will listen and give you answers you can understand. When I can’t tell if what I’m feeling is just my own thoughts or actually a prompting by the Spirit, I again turn to someone who can be more than a listener, someone who can be my closest friend. Yes, that certain someone is our Heavenly Father. No matter what you need or what time of day or night you need it, he is there! He has always been there for me, and I know he will be there for you!
Elder Chris Williamson, 20 Santa Rosa California Mission
When the Spirit is prompting me I feel calm and have a tingly feeling inside. I feel confident and positive that my decision is the right thing to do. It might feel different to you, but that’s how it feels to me. I know because I’ve experienced it many times.
Jaimee Macanas, 12 San Diego, California
For additional information on this subject, see Glenn L. Pace, “The Elusive Balance.” in this issue of the New Era; John H. Groberg, “What Are You Doing Here?” New Era, Jan. 1987, pp. 32–38; and Boyd K. Packer, “The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, pp. 51–56.