A common question among many members of the Church is, “How do I know what the Holy Ghost is telling me?” Whether you are a high school student making plans for the future, a missionary seeking new investigators, a young adult praying about a potential marriage partner, a parent unsure of how to instruct your children—or looking for direction on any number of other important decisions, discerning the Lord’s will for you can be a challenge.
I can count the times when I have received overwhelming impressions from the Holy Ghost, powerful enough to cast away all doubt, on one hand. Between these experiences lie a host of others that felt more like a guessing game than revelation.
I know all too well that the Spirit speaks with a still small voice, easy to miss if you aren’t listening carefully. This is not to say that I haven’t received guidance from the Spirit throughout my life, but I have always struggled to distinguish between the Holy Ghost, my own emotions, and other people’s influence. At times I have been gridlocked by uncertainty, even after I think I have received an answer.
Isn’t it ironic that those of us who sincerely desire to do the right thing often struggle to do so—precisely because we are so anxious to make the right choice? I know all of the go-to scriptures about revelation. I know that I’m supposed to study it out, that God will tell me in my mind and heart, and that a stupor of thought indicates a wrong choice.
I know that fear and confusion do not come from God. I’ve employed fasting, fervent prayer, and temple attendance to help me find answers. Often I will resort to making my own decisions and moving forward with faith that the right answer will come into focus as I go.
In spite of all this, there are times when I just—don’t—know. As I pondered on this paradox a few weeks ago, I was suddenly struck by a thought that sliced through the haze.
Satan likes to have the last word.
For many of us, Satan knows that he cannot convince us to do the worst things. But he can try to convince us not to do the best things. He can’t prevent us from receiving the promptings that we are seeking so earnestly, but he can throw some doubt into the mix at the last second, and thus discourage us from following through.
He knows that we mortals tend to remember negative experiences more than positive ones, especially if they happen most recently. Maybe, if Satan can get us to hesitate long enough, a good opportunity will pass, and the door that the Spirit held open for us will close.
At times, I am sure that Satan’s plan is much simpler than that. Sometimes he just wants us to be miserable, and to waste precious time and mental space worrying about the choices we’ve already made. He wants us to forget the feelings of peace and surety we’ve had in the past in favor of current fears.
Enter my favorite scripture, Doctrine & Covenants 6:22-23, which the prophet Joseph Smith received on Oliver Cowdery’s behalf:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?
Let us take a moment to review the story behind these verses. At the time that Joseph received this revelation, Oliver had been working as his scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon, and had received a witness of the truth of Joseph’s work before the two had ever met.
Joseph says in his account that the “Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and shewed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me his unworthy servant[;] therefore he was desirous to come and write for me to translate.”
Oliver received a clear and undeniable witness of the truth of Joseph’s story—yet, even after he had begun serving as scribe, it appears that doubts started to creep in. Why else would he desire a “further witness”?
Compare this account to Moses’ experience recorded in the Pearl of Great Price, and a pattern begins to emerge. Almost immediately after his burning bush vision, Moses is visited by Satan, who commands Moses to worship him.
Moses is not easily fooled, but it seems that Lucifer makes a habit of pestering the faithful soon after they receive spiritual witnesses. He succeeded in getting Laman and Lemuel to doubt the reassurance of an angel, not two minutes after the messenger departed. Even the Savior, toward the end of His forty days in the wilderness, was visited and tempted by the devil.
If Satan is so brazen as to challenge visions and heavenly manifestations—even moments after they have transpired—it is no wonder that the gentle promptings of the Holy Ghost can be so difficult to hear amidst the confusion that Satan inspires.
Which leads to the question, what should we do about it?
Act on the First Prompting
In his address Let the Holy Spirit Guide, Elder Ronald A. Rasband shares this counsel:
“We must be confident in our first promptings. Sometimes we rationalize; we wonder if we are feeling a spiritual impression or if it is just our own thoughts. When we begin to second-guess, even third-guess, our feelings—and we all have—we are dismissing the Spirit; we are questioning divine counsel. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that if you will listen to the first promptings, you will get it right nine times out of ten.
If you sincerely desire to do the Lord’s will and are living your life in a manner that welcomes the presence of the Holy Ghost, then often the first thing that comes to your mind is a good one. Don’t give traction to the doubts that follow your first impressions.
For me, this is where faith comes into play. When you make a decision based on promptings and impressions that were subtle to begin with—and suddenly you are seized by thoughts of doubt and uncertainty at the last second—the temptation to backpedal can be overwhelming.
Don’t give in. Put one foot in front of the other, however shaky, asking for and trusting in God’s guidance. Remember that the first prompting is usually the right one. Even if by chance you get it wrong that one time out of ten, do you think that Heavenly Father won’t help you correct your course? I don’t think so, either.
So, the next time you think you’re getting mixed signals or you’re paralyzed by latent feelings of doubt, remember. Remember that Satan likes to have the last word.
And don’t give it to him.