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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Discerning the Voices That Influence Us, Part 1

If you're like me, it can be a challenge to know if the voices you hear are from God, from Satan or just your imagination gone wild.

There are many among us who have gone weeks, months, even years without recognizing God's voice.  If this is the case with you, don't worry -- you're in good company. 

The boy Samuel had trouble recognizing God's voice, even when he could hear it. 

In the book Come Be My Light, we learn that throughout the course of her unparalleled ministry, Mother Teresa suffered spiritual dry spells, times when she didn’t detect the love or companionship of God. Month after month, and in some stretches year after year, Mother Teresa became increasingly despondent because of God’s silence. Although she desperately sought even a mere whisper from him, her wait was in vain. Despite his silence, Mother Teresa remained devoted. “Even though I don’t feel his presence,” she wrote, “I will seek to love him as he has never been loved."

(I love that last part: “I will seek to love him as he has never been loved")

Even if your "spiritual radio" may not be tuned in, or even turned on, God's signal is aimed at you, and continues unabated.  He who shed a drop of blood with your name on it beckons, invites and yearns for constant, consistent, intimate, transformative communication with you. 

Our God is a communicating God. Always has been, and always will be.

President Ezra Taft Benson said, “The great task of life is to learn the will of the Lord, and then do it” (Ezra Taft Benson, “The Great Commandment—Love the Lord,” Ensign, May 1988, 4).

In endeavoring to fulfill this task, we are ultimately influenced by three voices. 

And remarkably enough, the first voice that influences us may very well be God's. 

The First Voice that influences you: God's

In learning the will of God, it is the Lord himself who takes the first step towards us.  That's right -- contrary to popular belief, it is the Lord -- not we -- who knocks and speaks to our hearts and minds first.  It's up to us to open the door, and let him in:

"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." (Rev. 3: 20 JST)

The characteristics of the Lord's knock are pretty specific:

“They can tell the Spirit of the Lord from all other spirits will whisper peace and joy to their souls; it will take malice, hatred, strife and all evil from their hearts, and their whole desire will be to do good, bring forth righteousness, and build up the kingdom of God.” (Marion G. Romney, Conference Report, April 1944, pp. 138-141;

Elsewhere, we read:

"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." (Moroni 7:12-13)

These godly enticings will be delivered:

  • In a soft voice: “The voice of the Spirit is a still, small voice—a voice that is felt rather than heard” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Cloven Tongues of Fire,” Ensign, May 2000, 8).
  • With peace: “Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22–23)

Once we're aware of these characteristics, we can be on better guard for them.  Then, as the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “If you will listen to the first promptings, you will get it right nine times out of ten.” (Joseph Smith; Charles Lowell Walker, Diary of Charles L. Walker, [1855-1902], pg. 902)

Or, as President Harold B. Lee counseled,

"All of us should try to...give heed to the sudden ideas that come to us, and if we’ll give heed to them and cultivate an ear to hear these promptings we too—each of us—can grow in the spirit of revelation" (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee [Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society course of study, 2000], 51).

The Lord's knock reverberates in two directions: our hearts and our minds: "Yea, behold, 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).

  • Your heart: Your heart is aligned with God when you "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil." (Proverbs 3:5-7)  Indeed, "But if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul." (Deut. 4:30).  This is what happened with the two men who (unknowingly) walked with the resurrected Lord; they stated after they recognized him, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?” (Luke 24:32).

However, sometimes our heart is oriented in a direction opposite that of God. 

"Feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness might cause us to turn our hearts away from God to seek acceptance and approval from other sources. Sometimes our 'hearts are set [too] much upon the things of this world' and 'aspire to the honors of men' (D&C 121: 35). Disobedience can cause our hearts to harden and stiffen and sometimes even turn to stone. Hearts in these conditions have difficulty choosing in accordance with God’s will" (LaNae Valentine, "Discerning the Will of the Lord for Me", BYU Devotional, June 29, 2004,

  • Our minds: “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; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 151.)

Yet as Paul said, "There are . . . so many kinds of voices in the world" (1 Corinthians 14:10) that compete for our attention.  In a society filled with TV, shopping, sports, news, computer games, movies, music and the Internet, there are a thousand different stimuli which can easily distract and deviate our minds from God.

"If we are not in a quiet, still place when we approach Him, we might not hear or feel His answers. That quiet, still place must extend to our state of mind. The Spirit has difficulty impressing a busy, racing, anxious mind. More often than not, whisperings of the Spirit will go unheard if we are too busy to listen." (Valentine)

How can we ever be focused on His kingdom when we are so wrapped up in our own?

The Lord's knock may very well not be heard if our spirits are grossly out of alignment with his.  If we are living our lives in such a way that we have denied the sweet communion with the Spirit, then we need to repent. The Savior said, “Sanctify yourselves; yea, purify your hearts, and cleanse your hands … before me, that I may make you clean" (D&C 88:74). President Spencer W. Kimball also taught:

“The essence of the miracle of forgiveness is that it brings peace to the previously anxious, restless, frustrated, perhaps tormented soul. … God will wipe away … the tears of anguish, and remorse, … and fear, and guilt” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 363, 368). 

Repentance literally brings about spiritual cleanliness, the effects of which are peace -- the same peace we need to turn our focus away from the telestial kingdom and our telestial selves, and towards our celestial Father.

The Second Voice: Ourselves

If your heart is out of alignment with God or your mind is out of alignment with God or your spirit is out of alignment with God, then you may be in a state where you are unable to discern the still, small voice -- a state which Nephi describes as "past feeling":

"Ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words." (1 Nephi 17:45)

When we are unable to effectively feel God's words, we often substitute his words with our own, the characteristics of which are exemplified by doubt and indecision.

"How often have you had an impression and rationalized it away as your own thought? For instance, when faced with a particular challenge or problem, an impression might come as to what to do about it. Instead of acting on that prompting, many of us second- and third-guess the prompting and begin to doubt that it actually came from the Spirit." (Valentine)

D&C Section 6 gives us a classic case study of this particular situation.  Here, we read how the Lord had to remind Oliver Cowdery that he had already received many answers concerning the veracity of the Church and the course he was to take, but was unaware of it:

"Behold, thou knowest that thou has inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth. . . .
Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter?
Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not." (D&C 6: 15, 23, 36; emphasis mine)

Here's the big picture: When we do not pay attention to the Lord when He whispers to us on seemingly insignificant things, we are ill-aligned to discern his promptings when something big comes along.

This leads us to the third voice.

The Third Voice: Satan's

As we well know, Satan is the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33).  One of his best tools to solidify our doubts and confusion regarding the Holy Ghost's influence is to inject counterfeit revelation:

"Be ever on guard lest you be deceived by inspiration from an unworthy source. You can be given false spiritual messages. There are counterfeit spirits just as there are counterfeit angels... The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that it is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary." (Boyd K. Packer, Ensign, Jan. 1983, pp 55-56).

“Some have received revelations and heard voices that are put there deliberately by wicked sources to lead astray. You can learn to recognize those and tune them out, if you will." (“Revelation in a Changing World”, October 1989 General Conference).

So, how do we recognize Satan's counterfeit influences?

The Lord assures us that if a decision or course of action 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: 8–9).

The dictionary uses many words to describe a stupor: dazed, sluggish, numbness, absence of the ability to move or feel, apathy, languidness, dullness, or not feeling inspired to go forward. The depressive mood inherent in all of these words is noteworthy; there is nothing inspiring, exciting or comforting about any of them.

Contrast the stupor descriptors with words describing the Spirit: enlightens, enlivens, quickens, enlarges, expands, purifies, inspires, fills the soul with light, peace, love, clarity, and joy (see Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 9th ed. [1965], 101). Other descriptors of how the Spirit confirms our course are “much assurance,” “peace to your mind,” “confidence wax strong,” and “feel that it is right.”

In my next post, we'll examine different types of filters we can employ to better discern the spiritual signals which influence us.


  1. There are a couple things I really struggle with in this regard. Although I often have thoughts or impressions in my mind that I would like to attribute to the spirit, for the most part I don't have any kind of physical sensation like a burning in the bosom. In fact, I'm not sure that I've ever felt what I would truthfully characterize as a burning in the bosom, per se.

    The other challenge relates to distinguishing between the voice of the Lord and what I have come to call "clever thoughts." I often have thoughts, impressions and ideas that I would like to attribute to the spirit, and sometimes I have acted very diligently upon them only to have nothing happen, and completely lose traction. This seems to be at odds with the following quote: “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; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass. . . " Consequently, I find it both confusing and disconcerting when I have such thoughts and impressions but nothing materializes. And there are also other examples of clever thoughts and I struggle to decipher on the front end, and seem to only be able to judge "by the fruit" when I act upon them and nothing happens.

    Just a few of the specific challenges I face in this regard.

    I look forward to your other installments.

  2. RE: Your first paragraph -- In your case, it may not be a burning in the bosom that touches you best. My friend John Pontius once said that "Perhaps the hardest thing to learn about personal revelation is that it begins as the voice of the conscience." He continued:

    "There are many forms of revelation: the still small voice, burning in the bosom when truth is presented, bursts of understanding, dreams, visions, personal visitations, patriarchal blessings, flashes of insight, prophetic words in priesthood blessings - and many others. All these means are employed from time to time, but most often it is the still small voice which communicates the will of God."

    "Perhaps the hardest thing to learn about personal revelation is that it begins as the voice of the conscience. Every person knows what it is like to be prompted by their conscience to not do something. Fewer ever recognize the promptings to do something. It is the positive promptings which are the beginnings, the seeds of revelation. Just like the conscience, they come without fanfare or heralding trumpets. No angels sing, no glorious lights from heaven, no burning in the bosom, or visions of eternity occur; just a still small voice. The only way you know it is actually revelation is that it prompts you to do something good, such as to say your prayers, to do some kindness, to share, to give, to expand and grow."

    So, if you're not receiving a burning in the bosom (in your particular case), it may be helpful to review the intimations to your heart and mind which often precede such manifestations. Perhaps that's when God spoke to you?

    RE: Your first paragraph -- Good points. Because they are so individualized, I hesitate giving an explanation as to why you're having these particular experiences. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of potential reasons why you've had these experiences. So, my recommendation would be to pray until you receive an explanation. It may take days, months, years, decades, even perhaps once you are face-to-face with the Savior when these answers will be forthcoming. But one thing is for sure: God *does* answer prayers...especially those of his humble sons or daughters who ask, "Why?"

  3. Another great piece. Much thanks. One of the challenges I have is that I don't personally know ANYONE who I am convinced is truly a veteran Christ-follower. Almost every I know personally seems to be completely satisfied with an entirely different level of spiritual experience ("we've got enough," etc.), so I resort to fellowshipping with, and asking others, like you, on-line.

  4. Some things I have found helpful are John Pontius' thoughts as mentioned above. On his blog, or in his book Journey to the Veil he talks about the three voices. The second he calls the voice of our psyche. Our psyche wonders, analyzes, and debates. It asks questions. One way to distingush our own psyche is if it's a question... should i do this or that. The Spirit rarely (never?) asks questions. If i get a voice saying 'should i turn left' I figure it's my psyche. If I get a small light bulb-- doesn't have to be a burning feeling-- telling me to turn left, I turn left. The light bulbs are subtle. For me it's a feeling I can turn to and wait on for answers; it's like looking inward to the middle of my chest for a blooming feeling. For others it may be different. I ask for confirmation too. When in doubt-- follow the light bulbs. Like David Bednar says in 'Patterns of Light' mormon messages, sometimes we don't know for sure and it's all part of walking to the edge of the light and walking by faith.