The idea that God speaks to men and women in modern times is an article of faith for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Learning how to discern God’s voice is a frequent topic of discussion among the faithful.
At a devotional in the Marriott Center during Brigham Young University’s Education Week on Tuesday, August 22, 2023, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave an in-depth sermon on how observation, reason and faith work together to facilitate the discernment of God’s voice — or revelation, as Latter-day Saints call it.
These truths are illustrated, Elder Renlund said, by Church President Joseph F. Smith’s (1838–1918) experience in 1918 that led to what is now section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. President Smith was in poor health. His oldest son and his son’s wife had recently died. World War I was raging. And a deadly strain of influenza was claiming many millions.
As President Smith reflected on the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the redemption of the world through Him, he read from the New Testament about Jesus preaching to those who had died. Then the Holy Spirit “descended upon [President Smith], opening [the] eyes of [his] understanding,” leading to a vision of how the dead are redeemed.
President Smith saw Jesus Christ appear to many righteous people who had died before the Savior’s ministry in the Holy Land. And the president wondered how Jesus could preach to everyone who had died in only the time between His death and Resurrection.
President Smith then “understood [by revelation] that the Savior did not go in person to the disobedient spirits. Rather, he organized the righteous spirits … to carry the gospel message to the spirits in darkness.”
“We see that reason and faith provided a springboard for that revelation,” Elder Renlund said.
The Apostle then discussed five principles involved in the revelatory process.
1. Personal revelation requires work, including learning how the Holy Ghost communicates individually with us.
“We might discern that we have been influenced by the Holy Ghost if we ask ourselves if we have ever felt peaceful after making a decision, felt an increased capacity to resist temptation, felt an increase in love for others, or felt an increased desire to serve others,” Elder Renlund said.
He also asked, “Have we received ideas to help others, wanted to be a peacemaker in a conflict, or simply known what to do in a complex situation? These feelings may be manifestations of the Holy Ghost influencing us to do good.”
2. Personal revelation is facilitated by understanding and formulating questions from multiple angles.
Elder Renlund said the criteria to determine whether to act on a particular thought include the following:
- It promotes believing in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ
- It promotes loving and serving Them
- And it promotes doing good
“If the thought meets these criteria,” the Apostle asked, “does it really matter whether it was planted directly by the Holy Ghost in that exact moment or if the thought arose thanks to a lifetime of experiences and prior decisions? In reality, it does not. But observation and reason provide a filter through which we determine whether to act on an impression.”
3. Personal revelation usually requires depending on and acting on incomplete understanding.
“For me,” Elder Renlund said, “revelation frequently comes in short, terse, imperative directives, such as ‘Go!,’ ‘Do!,’ and ‘Say!’ Or it may come as ideas, usually coupled with a nudge to act on those ideas. Such promptings may be conveyed without words. Revelation can be delicate and trying to put into words that which was not given with words can limit understanding. Rarely does revelation come with clear explanations of why we should do something. Trying to explain ‘why’ when no revelatory reason was given, often misleads or can cause us to stumble.”
He added, “Observation, reason, and acting in faith does not mean that we are paralyzed when we do not feel an affirmative prompting.”
4. Personal revelation is iterative.
“We should recognize what God has already revealed to us personally, while being open to further revelation from Him,” Elder Renlund said. “Even when we have received revelation, it often takes acting in faith to understand how best to apply that information.”
Peter is an important example. He struggled to understand the meaning of the repeated vision he received (Acts 10) of a tablecloth with a variety of foods that observant Jews considered unclean. Peter was commanded to eat, but he refused. He was then told to not call impure what God had cleansed.
“The vision was crystal clear, as if a light switch had been flipped, but Peter did not understand it. He had to walk all the next day from Joppa to Cæsarea, enter the home of the centurion Cornelius, and hear him out before he understood that the revelation was a commandment to take the gospel to the non-Jewish population,” Elder Renlund said. “Even then Peter and the other Apostles had to discuss and reason how to apply this revelation in practical terms. Only after ‘it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to [them],’ did they know how to proceed. That understanding came gradually, like the light of dawn progressively getting brighter.”
5. Personal revelation requires humility to corroborate and not concoct impressions.
“We should not try to force spiritual things,” Elder Renlund counseled. “If we try to, we may rely on emotions that mimic spiritual promptings but are not. These emotions may include sentimentality, awe, empathy, excitement or raging hormones. Similarly, it is an advanced spiritual skill to know that revelation has not been received.”
In conclusion, Elder Renlund said observation, reason and faith “facilitate revelation and enable the Holy Ghost to be a reliable, trustworthy and beloved companion. These elements will be key factors in producing [what Church President Russell M. Nelson called] ‘spiritual momentum in our lives,’ helping us move ‘forward amid … fear and uncertainty.’”