FAIR Questions features a question that was submitted to FAIR volunteers through the FAIR website at fairlds.org. The answer in each episode is compiled from the various responses provided by the volunteers.
And now for the question:
How do I find a way to not only discern the Spirit from emotion, but how can I become convinced that the Spirit is actually real? How can I come to know that spiritual experience is not just a product of chemical processes in the brain? I mean, I’ve prayed about the truth of the Book of Mormon and the gospel and I have gotten answers to my prayers, but how can I come to know whether or not this is from God, and not just either a part of my subconscious or a delusion.
And now for the answer:
John taught us that there are a variety of influences, or “spirits,” that can be mistaken for revelation. He taught us that we should put these various influences to the test to see if they are of God. (1 John 4:1.) Similarly, Paul taught us to “Prove all things.” (1 Thess. 5:21.) Christ Himself warned, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (Matt. 7:15.)
In order to put the various voices we hear to the test, it is first important to learn how the Spirit communicates with us. The Spirit can manifest itself in a number of ways. In the account of the two disciples who met the resurrected Savior on the way to Emmaus, one of the believers said, “Did not our heart burn within us?” (Luke 24:32.) We are all familiar with the counsel given to Oliver Cowdery as he attempted to translate the Book of Mormon. He was told that, after he studied it out in his mind, and prayed about it, he would experience a “burning in the bosom” if he was right, but a stupor of thought if not. (D&C 9:7–9.)
On another occasion, Oliver was told that, if he needed further confirmation regarding the truth of the work in which he was engaged, he needed to simply remember the peace he experienced in his mind that came to him when he had earlier prayed about it. (D&C 6:23.)
Christ called the Holy Ghost “the Comforter.” (John 14:26.) Paul also taught that the Spirit brings peace. It can also fill one with love, joy, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. (Gal. 5:22-23.) The Spirit may sometimes give us a sense of constraint so that we will feel that we should do something, or not do something that is contrary to our natural inclinations. (See, e.g., 1 Ne. 4:10; Alma 14:11.)
The spiritual experience of the Nephites following King Benjamin’s famous speech teaches us how the spirit actually softens our heart, makes us willing to covenant with God, and diminishes our disposition to do evil. (See Mosiah 5:1-5.) This is a wonderful yardstick to use. If you feel no desire to do evil, but to do good continually, and your heart is softened so that you are willing to make covenants with God, then you can rest assured that it is the Spirit that is working upon you.
While the Spirit often communicates in the language of emotion, people have reported hearing an audible voice, or at least words that pop into their minds. Enos reported that while he was “struggling in the spirit, . . . the voice of the Lord came into [his] mind.” (Enos 1:10.) The Spirit has been described as a “still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12.) As it speaks to our minds, as well as our hearts, it may bring things to our remembrance. (John 14:26.) Joseph Smith, before receiving revelation on baptism for the dead, reported that the subject seemed “to occupy [his] mind, and press itself upon [his] feelings the strongest.” (D&C 128:1.) The Lord told Oliver Cowdery, “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.” (D&C 8:2.) Alma taught that as the Spirit helps a person to recognize the truth of God’s word, that person will notice that God’s word “beginneth to enlarge [his] soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten [his] understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to [him].” (Alma 32:28.) Joseph Smith explained that “A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon.” (TPJS, p. 151.) As the Lord promised, “I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy.” (D&C 11:13. See also D&C 6:15.)
So, how are we to know if those feelings, thoughts or words are from God? John taught us that “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.” (1 John 4:2-3.) After warning us of false prophets, Christ gave us the way in which they may be tested: “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” (Matt. 7:16. Compare Alma 32:27-43.)
In answer to the question, “How do we recognize the promptings of the Spirit?” President Hinckley read in Moroni chapter 7, and then said: “That’s the test, when all is said and done. Does it persuade one to do good, to rise, to stand tall, to do the right thing, to be kind, to be generous? Then it is of the Spirit of God. . . .
“If it invites to do good, it is of God. If it inviteth to do evil, it is of the devil. . . . And if you are doing the right thing and if you are living the right way, you will know in your heart what the Spirit is saying to you.
“You recognize the promptings of the Spirit by the fruits of the Spirit—that which enlighteneth, that which buildeth up, that which is positive and affirmative and uplifting and leads us to better thoughts and better words and better deeds is of the Spirit of God” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 260–61, referencing Moroni 7:13, 16-17.) Similarly, Hyrum Smith was taught that the Spirit leads us to “do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously.” (D&C 11:12.)
It is important to note that it will be difficult to recognize the voice of the spirit if our actions are not conducive to spirituality. The Savior taught, “If any man will do his will, he will know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17.) The Spirit often accompanies activities such as prayer, scripture study, fasting, the performing of ordinances, worship through song, instruction, meditation, and temple attendance, expressions of love and service. It is more difficult for the Spirit to communicate with one who is engaged in activities of lust, anger, or greed, or even simple noise and confusion.
Furthermore, God’s house is a house of order. (D&C 132:8.) God will not inspire His leaders to give certain instructions, and then inspire His children to disobey those instructions. Therefore, one of the ways to verify the voice of the Lord is to test the inspiration one received for consistency with the words God has already spoken through his leaders in the scriptures, at General Conference, or in a private meeting with a bishop.
We can also know that a prompting is not of God when we feel to direct the affairs of another person over whom we have no authority. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught, “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).
Of course, God has His own timeline, and His ways are not our ways. (Isaiah 55:8.) We cannot force the hand of God either in immediately providing revelation or in sending us revelation that simply conforms to our own preconceived notions or desires. We should be careful in following feelings that simply confirm our own biases. In contrast, if we are feeling prompted to do something that challenges us to grow, and something we may not have otherwise chosen for ourselves, this may be an indication of authenticity. In short, a humble and submissive soul is more susceptible to the whisperings of the Spirit. We should follow the example of Christ who asked that he might be spared from drinking from the cup of the atonement, but afterward said “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39)
Could it all just be brain chemicals? We should be careful not to confuse the effects of the Spirit with the Spirit itself. As the Spirit brings peace, joy, motivation to do good, etc., these will be experienced in the brain like any other thought or emotion. However, just as an event that brings us joy is not joy itself, the fact that the Spirit can bring us joy does not mean that the Spirit is a mere emotional effect or process of the brain. It takes more effort to believe in the Spirit than in something we can sense with touch or sight, but that does not make the Spirit less real. While we cannot see gravity, we can observe its effects. Similarly, we can seek true revelations and observe their effects.
Like any other talent, discerning the voice of the Spirit takes practice. It also involves a process of trial and error. One member of FAIR reported that he went through a couple months in his teenage years where he thought he was receiving all kinds of revelations on all kinds of topics. As time went on, and many of the impressions turned out to be false, he learned valuable lessons on how to tell the difference between the Spirit, and other influences. As he has gained experience, he says that he has more confidence in sorting out his feelings.
Learning what the Spirit is and how to respond is one of life’s most important lessons. As you follow the impressions you have, don’t be discouraged when you find that they are not from God. Just learn from your experience. As you act on true revelation from God, you will come to better recognize the voice of the Spirit. As you follow the Spirit, its voice will become clearer and revelation will become more frequent.
If there is an issue that you have been wondering about, you can often find the latest answers at the FAIR wiki, found at fairmormon.org. If you can’t find your answer there, feel free to pose your question to the FAIR apologists by visiting the FAIR contact page. Occasionally, such a question will be featured on FAIR Questions. Before questions are used for this podcast, permission is obtained from the questioner.
Questions or comments about this episode can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, or join the conversation at fairblog.org.
Tell your friends about us and help increase the popularity of this podcast by subscribing in iTunes and by writing a review.
Music for this episode was provided courtesy of Lawrence Green.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are not necessarily the views of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or of FAIR.