How do I distinguish my own thoughts from divine inspiration?
Apparently this question arises in just about every face-to-face meeting between a prominent church leader and the young adults of the church. See several examples below.
“Today I want to address the one question that is asked most frequently by the students with whom we meet. In fact, during the entire time we have been holding family home evenings with students, I cannot remember a single time when some version of this question was not asked. Here’s the question: “Elder and Sister Bednar, how can I tell the difference between my emotions telling me what I want to hear and the Holy Ghost telling me what I need to hear?
Because the Holy Ghost typically uses our minds and our hearts to convey spiritual messages, it can sometimes be difficult to discern the difference between our own thoughts and feelings and those communicated from our Heavenly Father. May I now suggest four principles that can help us to receive, recognize, and respond to the Holy Ghost in our daily lives.
Principle #1 — We must desire the companionship of the Holy Ghost-Do you and I likewise remember to pray, both morning and night, for that which we should most desire, even the Holy Ghost?
Principle #2 — We must invite the companionship of the Holy Ghost- The opposite of inviting the Spirit is offending or repulsing the Spirit. In our modern world, the very technologies that bless our lives and enable us to instantly view and access news and information from around the world also have the potential to drive the Spirit away from us and even destroy us.
Principle #3 — We must heed simple promptings-To the degree that we heed these simple promptings, then our capacity to recognize and respond to the Holy Ghost is increased. To the degree that we do not heed these simple promptings, then our capacity to recognize and respond to the Holy Ghost is decreased. We are either progressing or regressing in our ability to recognize and respond to the Holy Ghost.
Principle #4 — We must heed promptings quickly-I have learned that acting upon promptings quickly greatly increases our capacity to receive and recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost.“– Elder and Sister Bednar- Ricks College devotional 1999
Youth interviewer: “Our next questions come from Serenity from Canada and William from French Polynesia, they both have similar questions. Serenity asks ‘How do I tell the difference between promptings from the Holy Ghost and my own thoughts?’ And William asked, ‘Can you teach me how to recognize the Holy Ghost when he speaks to me?'”
Elder Bednar: “I think we over complicate this. I think we over analyze it. Moroni teaches that all good emanates from Christ. So if you have a thought to do something good, it’s prompted by the Holy Ghost. So for example if a student goes to an early morning Seminary class, and your mother says every day, ‘Be sure to say your prayers,’ and one day you forget to say your prayers and in your mind you hear your Mother’s voice saying ‘Make sure to say your prayers.’ Is that the Holy Ghost or is that you? What difference does it make? Is Moroni going to come to deliver that message, or would the Holy Ghost use the memory of your angel Mother to deliver the same message? So if it invites and entices to do good, it comes from Christ, and we ought to do it.
Now, I’m sure these folks who ask the question..’Well ok but what if I’m making a decision about should I go to this school or should I go to that school, how do I begin to know the difference?’ You study it out in your own mind. You don’t just sit and wait for heaven to deliver the answer. You have to learn about the two options. You do your best to understand and compare them, and then ultimately you make a choice, and you take that option that you selected, in prayer to our Heavenly Father, and ask in the name of Christ, ‘Is this the right one?’ You and I have a responsibility to study that out. If it’s right, then over time we’ll come to know by the simple reassurance of the Holy Ghost that this is the thing to do. Sometimes you have two good options and you never feel really strong about one or the other. There are even some times where Heavenly Father will say ‘You make a judgement.’ If it’s wrong, you’ll be warned as you begin to try apply the decision that you’ve made. No member of this church who is trying to be a good boy or a good girl will fail to be warned by the Holy Ghost if they’re heading in a direction that is not right. But you have to keep pressing forward to get the other parts of the answer that help you know which parts of the path to pursue.”– Face to Face with Elder and Sister Bednar- May 18, 2015
“People will sometimes question whether it’s inspiration or whether it’s my own thought. We have to act, then we find out if it’s coming from me or it’s the power of God. So, for an example, you may have an occasion where you fail to say your morning prayers, and you all of the sudden hear the voice of your mother who, when you were a small boy would say, ‘Remember to say your morning prayers, remember to say your evening prayers.’ Why would God send an angel to deliver that message to you when the Holy Ghost can bring back to you the recollection of the remembrance of your angel mother reminding you to pray? The effect is the same. Everything that invites and entices us to do good and to be good comes from God. People ask, ‘Well why not make it easy to recognize all the time?’ I would suggest that the simple answer is because God trusts us. He shouldn’t have to dramatically shake us to get our attention. Those who are baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints receive by the laying on of hands, the gift of the Holy Ghost. Now, any person anywhere in the world, can and is influenced by the Holy Ghost. But after baptism by proper authority, one receives this ordinance of the Holy Ghost. That gift, as it operates in our life, as we seek and ask, invites inspiration from Heaven and revelation.”- Patterns of Light: Discerning Light- Elder Bednar
Youth Interviewer: “Next question is for Sister Oscarson. Emy from Germany asks, ‘I don’t feel like I’m receiving answers to my prayers or even feeling the spirit when I pray. When I feel like I do receive an answer, I doubt if it’s from Heavenly Father or if it’s my own thoughts. What am I doing wrong?’ And Leonardo from Brazil asks ‘How can I learn to hear the whisperings from the spirit?’
Sister Oscarson: “Well Leonardo and Emy those are great questions and something all of us need to learn. How can we determine whether something is our own thought or coming from the spirit? Actually, there’s a really great scripture that I love. Every time I get towards the end of the Book of Mormon, I think wow, that scripture if kind of a key to a lot of answers, so let me see if I can find it here, it’s in Moroni 7:16. So if I can read this <reads the scripture- ‘…Every thing which inviteth to do good and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.’-
Isn’t that a great clue for how we know something comes from the spirit or from us? If it persuades us to do good, if it persuades us to believe in Christ, it’s good, it comes from God, the spirit. I was reading a really good talk the other day from Boyd K. Packer, where he talked a lot about young people about how to disinguish, how to hear the promptings of the spirit, and he gave some great clues, too. He said it’s a very sensitive communication and that we need to be doing our part. He said first of all we need to ask, we need to be praying, so I assume we’re doing that anyway if we’re asking a question. He also said you need to be listening to the right music, you need to be keeping the Word of Wisdom, these are all things that can deaden our ability to hear the spirit. That we need to be worthy, we need to be pure and clean. Reading our scriptures. And then he said that you need to recognize that the spirit can talk to us in different ways. Sometimes it comes, well there’s a scripture that talks about in your heart and in your mind. And to me that says that it can come maybe as a thought that comes into your mind or it can come as a feeling. So if we start to recognize these different ways then I think we can perceive that we’re being led. And sometimes it’ll be very clear, you’ll get a clear thought in your head and sometimes it’s just a good feeling, so you just have to kinda move forward and trust that if you’re doing your part in these things, the Lord’s not going to let you get too far down the road without giving you corrections.
It’s not always going to be clear, he wants us to work at it a little bit and we have to do our part for it. But I can promise you that that’s one of the greatest spiritual abilities that you can develop in your life, is listening to the spirit. It’s the greatest gift we have, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, when we’re baptized. And I know that as you act upon the small promptings you get, that you’ll get better at it. I think I’ve gotten better at listening to the spirit the older I’ve gotten, and as I’ve acted upon the things I’ve been given, then he’s going to give me more. So you just keep pressing forward.”– Face to Face with Elder Rasband, Sister Oscarson, and Brother Owen- January 20, 2016
“…We came back to a particular fork in the road, really the only one, that at that point was absolutely unrecognizable. I asked my son to pray about which road to and he felt strongly that we should go the right and I did as well and we went to the right and it was a dead end. We went 4,5 or 600 yards and it was an absolute dead end. Clearly, the wrong road. Turned around, came back out, took the other road and clearly the road to the left was the correct road. Somewhere along the way, Matt said ‘Dad, why did we feel, after praying about it, that the right road was the proper one to take, the correct one to take, and it wasn’t?’ And I said that I think that the Lord, his wish for us there, and his answer to our prayer was to get us on the right road as quickly as possible, with some reassurance, with some understanding that we were on the right road and we didn’t have to worry about it. In this case, the easiest way to do that, was to let us go 400 yards, or 500 yards on the wrong road, and very quickly know, without a doubt that it was the wrong road and therefore with equal certainty, with equal conviction, that the other one was the right road. I have absolute certain knowledge, perfect knowledge that God loves us. He is good. He is our Father. And he expects us to pray and trust and be believing and not give up, and not panic, and not retreat, and not jump ship when something doesn’t seem to be going just right. We stay in, we keep working, we keep believing, keep trusting, following that same path. And we will live to fall in his arms and feel his embrace and hear him say ‘I told you it’d be ok. I told ya it’d be alright.'” – Wrong Roads- Elder Holland
Some individuals don’t necessarily believe in an interventionist God, who sends inspiration down favorably upon those who happen to access his power correctly, but instead believe that “God” may be more of a connectedness that we all share. “God” may be manifest in the good that we do and how attentive we are to the needs of others. They take the scripture to heart where Jesus proclaims, “Ye are Gods.” They worry less about the mechanism of revelation, and what formula to apply in order to obtain it, but try to remain attentive to the feelings of inspiration they have that connects them to others.
Many non-literal believers express less certainty or even less interest entirely in the source of their feelings of “inspiration.” They tend to take an approach where they just accept what they receive and do their best to act on it. They worry less about trying to parse out what is their own emotion vs. feelings of the spirit and just move forward in faith.
There is a good reason why the number one question asked by the young people of the church is how to distinguish their own thoughts and emotions from promptings of the spirit. Non-believers would say they are indistinguishable, that’s why. I searched extensively to find church approved sources that discuss HOW to distinguish one’s own thoughts and feelings from the promptings of the spirit. The clearest examples I could find are presented in the Literal Belief section. Interestingly, not one time is it ever made clear HOW to distinguish the two at the time of receipt, at the actual time the thought or feeling is experienced. How do you tell the difference? How do you tell whether it originates from your own head or heart or from some external supernatural source? Non-believers would say that they are indistinguishable because they are one and the same, and any thoughts or feelings you have most likely originate within you. If they did come from an external source how would you ever know? How would you ever prove that? People talk about experiencing something different, something “outside themselves,” or even extra sensory. Non-believers would ask, if it is “outside yourself,” how would you be able to perceive that? If it is extra sensory, then how are you “sensing” it? They would agree with Elder Bednar that members of the LDS faith overcomplicate and overanalyze this.
Non-believers would say it simply CAN’T be that important to learn to distinguish between our own thoughts and feelings and the promptings from some external, supernatural source. If you look at what the Bednars, or Sister Oscarson, or Elder Holland say (or any other General Authority for that matter) you will see that not one of them can give you the answer to this question. All of their explanations devolve into a formulaic approach of how to receive the spirit more abundantly in our lives, but not how to distinguish that from something of our own creation.
There is much talk about that which invites us to do good is from the spirit, but what if there are two good options? For example, Elder Bednar said “Sometimes you have two good options and you never feel really strong about one or the other. There are even some times where Heavenly Father will say ‘You make a judgement.’ If it’s wrong, you’ll be warned as you begin to try apply the decision that you’ve made.” My question is, how do you know that “warning” is from God or from your own mind?
Elder Bednar says that we should study it out and choose and the Lord will guide us as we go, and that we need to act before we know. Sis Oscarson says the Lord won’t let us go too far if we are on the wrong road. Elder Holland says that sometimes the Lord tells us to go the wrong way so we can know sooner which is the right way. In reality, all of these suggestions are just ways to confirm our own biases. It creates a completely unfalsifiable situation, where God and the spirit win every time, no matter what happens. In the example Elder Holland gave, how in the world does that demonstrate how we can distinguish our own thoughts from those of the spirit? Is it possible that even if impressions of the spirit are real, the impression they had to go down the wrong road was one of their own creation? What answer could he and his son have possibly received that would help them distinguish the two? No matter what impression is received, it can be attributed to the spirit. If they had the impression to go down the correct road, it would be a testimony that God answers prayers and communicates his will to his children. They got the impression to go down the wrong road and as it turns out, that was God’s answer to their prayer as well!
What if we are praying and asking if we should marry a certain individual? Should we trust what we feel? Should we trust what “revelation” has told the other person? What if a young man tells a young woman that God revealed to him that they were to be married? If you receive a confirmation to marry someone do you have to act first before you know it’s from God? Do you get married first then when you realize it was mistake, get divorced? Do you get engaged and see how far down the wrong road God lets you go before deciding to break off the engagement, if you have the fortitude to do so?
“A freshman from Costa Rica, Tatiana Brenes has also experienced religious stalking. Brenes said she receives almost daily contact from a man convinced that she is the one he needs to marry. ‘A man is supposed to be the head of the household and receive revelation,’ Brenes said. ‘It made me feel pressured; he said he’d received a revelation so I felt I needed to receive one.’ However, Brenes feels a resigned sympathy for what she feels like these men are going through…‘They are trying to follow God by finding a mate,’ she said. ‘They think they’re following revelation.’
‘I believe that a lack of understanding the role and interpretation of revelation leads some well-meaning people to mistaken assumptions about what their feelings mean,” Goodman said. “It is important to remember that a prompting to pursue a relationship does not mean that the other person necessarily feels, or even should feel, the same way. Both people have a right to decide whether to pursue a relationship and to receive their own spiritual guidance as they do so.’”– ‘Revelation’ to marry can lead to stalking- BYU- The Digital Universe
Goodman mentions a misinterpretation of revelation as one cause of this issue. But as you can see from the literal belief section, how is one to distinguish true revelation from hormonal revelation?
How does the advice of church leaders apply to situations of potential danger? Should you cross the street in traffic? Should you exit the freeway now, potentially avoiding a deadly crash? Should you not allow your child to swim in the lake because you had an impression to do so? How do you know if these worries or fears are self-generated or from God? Non-believers would say that any God who would let you get into a car accident, or drown in a lake, or be injured or killed in a natural disaster because you weren’t worthy or perceptive enough to hear his whispers is not a God worthy of worship. Can you imagine doing the same to your own children? Let say one of your children is about to cross the street and get hit by a car. You send him telepathic messages to not cross the street. He looked at porn, or masturbated, or listened to “rock music,” or got into a fight with a loved one that morning so the spirit has withdrawn from him or he simply perceives that your telepathic message is his own thought and it doesn’t mean anything. He crosses the street and is killed. Does this make any sense at all? God would allow the mortal existence of one of his children to end because of that?? Imagine this individual meets God, beyond the veil, and God tells him that he was warned through the Holy Ghost not to cross the street. This individual says he remembers that prompting but thought it was just in his own head. Since he was unable to distinguish the two, his mortal life is now over. To non-believers, this is nonsensical.
If 1/3 of the hosts of heaven rebelled, while directly in God’s presence, having had face-to-face interactions with him, how important could it possibly be to now test the faithful 2/3 by seeing how well they respond to communication so subtle that it is virtually unrecognizable?
My advice would be to make the most educated decision you can and worry very little about what you are being “prompted” to do, since it is impossible to distinguish between that prompting and your own feelings. You will make some mistakes but you will also make some correct decisions. Do the best you can. I am NOT saying don’t listen to your instincts, or to your gut feelings. You may be in a situation where your physical senses are interpreting a potentially dangerous situation. What I am saying is that whether that is an evolutionary response, developed over millions of years, or a true supernatural prompting, makes no difference at all. Please do not beat yourself up trying to figure out whether you weren’t “worthy” enough to receive revelation, or whether you interpreted it incorrectly, or why God would be “testing” you by letting you make an incorrect decision. Any God who relies on how well you listen to his whispers or how correctly you distinguish between his promptings and your own feelings or thoughts is using a mechanism that is truly abysmal for the testing his children.
Literal believers believe that revelation is an accurate way of “knowing” things that are not only personal to their lives but that reflect objective reality as well. They believe it’s very important to live their lives in harmony with LDS teachings so they will be able to recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost and in this way avoid physical and spiritual danger, obtain a better understanding of God’s will, and learn to distinguish their own emotions and thoughts from divine inspiration. They believe it is important to align with the 15 brethren, who act as arbiters when personal revelation conflicts with institutional revelation.
Non-literal believers take a more nuanced approach to spirituality. They are open to a spiritual realm that in diverse ways can inform their views of the natural world. They are typically universalists who feel that everyone should be able to access God’s will equally. They are less likely to allow institutional revelation to supersede their own personal revelation.
Non-believers are generally skeptical of a spiritual realm. They believe that any purported “revelation” is most likely originating from a person’s own thoughts or emotions, therefore it is not important to be able to distinguish the two. They don’t believe “revelation” is a valid tool to inform us about scientific facts, or objective reality. They also believe it is very dangerous to make important decisions based on “personal revelation” that one feels comes from God, because this “revelation” is highly subjective and most likely originating in that person’s own mind. This is even more dangerous when a person feels they need to “align with brethren,” despite any misgivings they have about a specific revelation or policy. This can lead to spiritual abuse and/or feelings of scrupulosity if they fail to align their will with that of the institution.
Personally, I find myself between the non-literal and non-belief camps, with most of my views aligning with the non-belief side. It seems harder for a literal believer to understand the non-literal and non-believing points of view, while those two can typically understand the literal believer better, because most of them held that point of view at one time in their lives. Regardless of which point of view resonates the most with you, I think it’s important to be open to all levels of belief and seek to understand why someone may see things differently than you.