One of the most important challenges of our mortal probation is learning to hear, recognize, and then follow the voice of the Lord.
Part of that challenge is that there is sometimes confusion about personal revelation. Have you heard statements like “How do I know if an impression is really from the Lord or if it is just my own emotions?” Or “I never seem to have a spiritual experience.” Or “I have prayed again and again about this. Why isn’t the Lord answering me?”
I would like to address three questions about personal revelation:
What is the voice of the Lord like?
How can I distinguish between true and counterfeit revelation?
What can I do to enhance my ability to hear, recognize, and follow the voice of the Lord?
The voice is still. It is small. And it whispers. When you think about that, it becomes clear that hearing the voice of the Lord has challenges. It would be much simpler if the Lord spoke in a voice of thunder or used a microphone and 80-megawatt speakers.
In Doctrine and Covenants 8, the Lord defined what revelation is and how it comes:
“I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
“Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation” (D&C 8:2–3).
“In your mind and in your heart”—think about that. If the Lord spoke something to our mind, how would it come? We would probably describe it as “thoughts.” If He tells us something in our hearts, we would probably describe that as “feelings.”
Thoughts and feelings are the most common ways the Lord gives His children personal revelation. And therein lies a challenge. Every one of us is a stream of thoughts and feelings. In the midst of that torrent of thought and feeling, the Lord from time to time inserts a thought or a feeling that comes from Him. How do we tell the difference?
Before we address that question, there is one thing we need to note first. It has to do with revelation that does not come from the Lord.
If something is counterfeit, it means it resembles the original so closely that it is difficult to distinguish which is the true and which is the false. We must ever be on guard against being deceived by our emotions or by revelation from an unworthy source.
Through the scriptures and the statements of modern prophets, we find principles that can help us determine how to decide if revelation comes from the Lord or from another source. I would like to briefly outline five of those guidelines or principles.
1 It is God who determines all aspects of revelation.
We can study and pray; on occasion we can add fasting to our prayers; we can importune the Lord with deep yearnings; we can keep sacred covenants—all of these will help create a climate that fosters spiritual growth. But we must remember that when all is done, it is still up to the Lord to determine when the revelation comes, how it is given, what is revealed, and to whom.
With the utmost earnestness and the deepest of pleadings, the Savior called on His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane to remove the dreaded cup of His coming sacrifice. But that request was followed immediately by these profound words: “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). That should be part of every request we take to the Lord. In that simple phrase lies the key to our willingness to let the Lord decide what is best.
2 The content given in a revelation is more important than the form in which it comes.
Another mistake some make is to covet the more dramatic forms of revelation. God reveals His mind and will to man across a broad spectrum of experiences. These may range from the very direct and dramatic: the appearance of divine beings, open visions, fire from heaven. Or they may be very subtle: quiet premonitions, gentle thoughts, a feeling of peace. These are by far the most common. We must be careful we don’t feel that only the more direct forms of revelation are valid.
3 Revelation from God does not contradict gospel principles or go contrary to established Church policy and procedure.
When there is new doctrine or new procedures to come forth, you will get it in one of three ways:
a. A formal press conference will be called by the leaders of the Church, at which an official announcement will be made.
b. It will be announced through the Church News, the Ensign, or other official Church communications.
c. It will be announced in general conference by those in authority.
Otherwise, we should be very wary about accepting it, and we should not share it with others.
4 The Lord wants us to use our agency and develop spiritual self-reliance.
The scriptures and the prophets warn us about seeking to be directed in every matter of life. The Lord says:
“It is not meet [it is not proper or good] that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward” (D&C 58:26).
There are some things that don’t matter to the Lord; He leaves the choice up to us (see D&C 60:5). Striking the balance between trust in the Lord and spiritual self-reliance is a delicate matter, but it is clear that the Lord does not want us to be spiritual robots who are afraid to move without first being told what to do.
5 A person is not given revelation to direct another person unless they have priesthood or family responsibility for that person.
This principle is described by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the principle of “stewardship in revelation.” This means that “only the President of the Church receives revelation to guide the entire Church. Only the stake president receives revelation for the special guidance of the stake. The person who receives revelation for the ward is the bishop. … When one person purports to receive revelation for another person outside his or her own area of responsibility … you can be sure that such revelations are not from the Lord” (“Revelation,” New Era, Sept. 1982, 46).
There are many answers that could be given to that question: be worthy, pray always, earnestly seek the Lord, follow the General Authorities. But I should like to answer in a little different way.
The Lord’s voice is still and small and it whispers. If our lives are filled with “noise,” we will find it difficult to hear. We must find ways to reduce the inner noise in our lives and create times of inner stillness and quiet.
There are many sources of inner noise. Some are obvious. Sin can create tremendous inner noise. Anger and contention are a major source of inner noise. Other sources of inner noise are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. Physical tiredness, stress, busyness, apathy, and worry can all create inner noises of their own.
Even outer noise can detract from inner quiet. We often live in envelopes of outer noise. This is not a bad thing, but it may interfere at times with the quiet whisperings the Lord wants to give us.
Let me mention one other common source of great inner noise. When we desperately desire something, it creates a great rush of emotion within us. And high emotion can mask or cover spiritual promptings. Even if the thing we desire is a good thing, our “wants” may be so high that we become unwilling or unable to hear the Lord’s will in the matter.
Thankfully, the scriptures and the prophets teach us how to reduce inner noise and create times of quiet and reverence.
Reading and studying the word of God is a great source of inner quiet. You can feel things begin to change. The agitation melts away, and peace comes in its place. I have experienced that time and again in my own life.
Prayer is another source of inner quiet and serenity. I am not talking about the I-have-to-do-my-duty sort of prayers. I speak of prayers that are consistent, focused, and submissive to God’s will.
We can increase our own personal reverence. In sacrament meetings we can sit quietly and prepare for the covenant-making process offered there. We witness to God that we are willing to “always remember him” (see D&C 20:77, 79). If we keep that covenant, we shall always have His Spirit to be with us.
Finally, deliberately put aside the cares of the world, put aside the rush of our daily lives, and find a quiet place and a quiet time to sit and ponder and reflect and meditate.
If the voice of the Lord is still and small and it whispers, should it surprise us that His counsel is “Be still and know that I am God”? (D&C 101:16). There is great significance to that simple statement. Only as we are still can we learn to hear the still, small voice.
“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. …
“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.”
—President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, 53.
To read about how others received and recognized inspiration, read the following articles in the Gospel Library at www.lds.org: “Lead Me, Guide Me,” by Margaret D. Nadauld (New Era, Nov. 2001) and “I Said Yes,” by Marilyn Feik (New Era, May 1999).