I have often wondered how I could tell the difference between an inspired impression from Heavenly Father through the Holy Ghost and something I thought of myself and felt good about. Somewhere over this past weekend I heard it said at church that Elder Scott had asked this very question in a meeting once, and after some detailed group discussion, gave the answer that there is no difference, if you are keeping the commandments your good thoughts do come from the Lord.
The more I thought about that, the more I wanted to know if Elder Scott had really said it, or if he was misquoted somehow. My search for an answer led me to two of his General Conference talks, one given in April 2007 (http://goo.gl/ohaEP), the other in October 2009 (http://goo.gl/nzrUh). I never found the exact quote, but these two gems gave me great insight in to what he describes as the struggle to receive personal revelation ... and a good deal of comfort that Nephi's testimony that "the Lord ... giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them" specifically applies to the commandment to pray ... and to work to hear and understand the answers we receive.
What Elder Scott says is far more instructive than anything I will write here, and I urge you to click on each of the links above to his talks, slowly allowing what the Lord said through him to sink deeply into your soul. What I will write here is simply my own study notes. The purple highlights are what I have marked in his talk, the other comments are my personal thoughts on those highlights.
- "Prayer is a supernal gift of our Father in Heaven to every soul. Think of it: the absolute Supreme Being, the most all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful personage, encourages you and me, as insignificant as we are, to converse with Him as our Father."
- Don’t worry about your clumsily expressed feelings. Just talk to your compassionate, understanding Father. You are His precious child whom He loves perfectly and wants to help. As you pray, recognize that Father in Heaven is near and He is listening. Read that thought a few times ... it is so comforting!
- A key to improved prayer is to learn to ask the right questions. Consider changing from asking for the things you want to honestly seeking what He wants for you. Then as you learn His will, pray that you will be led to have the strength to fulfill it. This concept is also very sobering to contemplate.
- Should you ever feel distanced from our Father, it could be for many reasons. Whatever the cause, as you continue to plead for help, He will guide you to do that which will restore your confidence that He is near. Pray even when you have no desire to pray.
- I have learned much about prayer by listening to President Hinckley offer supplications in our meetings. You can also learn from him by carefully studying the exceptional public prayer he offered at the conclusion of the October 2001 conference for Father’s children throughout the world. He prayed from his heart, not from a prepared manuscript. (For convenience that prayer is reproduced at the end of this message.) Be sure to click on "show references" at the end of the talk so that you will see this special, emotional prayer, given at General Conference held three weeks after the horrible events of September 11, 2011.
- Study that prayer [President Hinckley's], and you will find that there are no vain repetitions, no posturing to impress others, as sometimes occurs. He combines simple words eloquently. He prays as a humble, trusting son who knows well his beloved Father in Heaven. He confides in the certainty that His answer will come when most needed.
- Seldom will you receive a complete response all at once. It will come a piece at a time, in packets, so that you will grow in capacity. As each piece is followed in faith, you will be led to other portions until you have the whole answer.
- However, His answers will seldom come while you are on your knees praying, even when you may plead for an immediate response.
- Hence, you should find periods of quiet time to recognize when you are being instructed and strengthened. His pattern causes you to grow.
- Be thankful that sometimes God lets you struggle for a long time before that answer comes. Your character will grow; your faith will increase. There is a relationship between those two: the greater your faith, the stronger your character; and increased character enhances your ability to exercise even greater faith.
- On occasion, the Lord will give you an answer before you ask. This can occur when you are unaware of a danger or may be doing the wrong thing, mistakenly trusting that it is correct. Elder Scott continues this thought later in his talks. I consider it to be part of the answer to whether our "good feelings" that may not always be accompanied by "burning in the bosom" are of God. If we follow in good faith the still, small promptings we receive, He will not let us proceed too far down the wrong course of action without giving a warning prompting -- which still leaves it up to us to be quietly listening for.
- "life will be easier when you accept that what God does in your life is for your eternal good."
- Obey the Master’s counsel to “study it out in your mind.” Often you will think of a solution; as you seek confirmation that your answer is right, help will come. It may be through your prayers, or as an impression of the Holy Ghost, and at times by the intervention of others. The thought occurs to me that if we want the Lord's help in our own prayers, we should be willing to let him use us, through service, to be the answer to others' prayers. This goes back to the encouragement Elder Scott gives us to ask in prayer what Heavenly Father's will is for us rather than for what we think we want.
- After quoting D&C 9:8-9 about the experience of Oliver Cowdery trying to translate without "studying it out in [his] mind", Elder Scott continues with: Then the answer comes as a feeling with an accompanying conviction. The Savior defines two separate ways: “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost.”Answers to the mind and heart are messages from the Holy Ghost to our spirits. For me, response to the mind is very specific, like dictated words, while response to the heart is generalized, like a feeling to pray more.Then the Lord clarifies, “But if [what you propose] be not right you … shall have a stupor of thought.” That, for me, is an unsettling, discomforting feeling.
- Actually, He will reply in one of three ways. First, you can feel the peace, comfort, and assurance that confirm that your decision is right. Or second, you can sense that unsettled feeling, the stupor of thought, indicating that your choice is wrong. Or third—and this is the difficult one—you can feel no response.
- What do you do when you have prepared carefully, have prayed fervently, waited a reasonable time for a response, and still do not feel an answer? You may want to express thanks when that occurs, for it is an evidence of His trust. When you are living worthily and your choice is consistent with the Savior’s teachings and you need to act, proceed with trust. As you are sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit, one of two things will certainly occur at the appropriate time: either the stupor of thought will come, indicating an improper choice, or the peace or the burning in the bosom will be felt, confirming that your choice was correct. When you are living righteously and are acting with trust, God will not let you proceed too far without a warning impression if you have made the wrong decision. This is very reassuring to me. At the same time it is very challenging, because it clearly puts the burden on each of us individually to "live righteously and act with trust". Hence the need to study and pray deeply and daily, finding the quietest spot and time we can. What a blessing the temple is in this regard ... I don't know that we can go too often. With the strength gained from daily devotionals and a constant quiet prayer in our hearts, it is easier to find sin repulsive and to make correct choices in life.
In his October 2009 talk, Elder Scott addresses the impact of sin on personal revelation:
- I share a warning. Satan is extremely good at blocking spiritual communication by inducing individuals, through temptation, to violate the laws upon which spiritual communication is founded, Earlier in his talk he noted ...
- When such influences are present, it is like trying to savor the delicate flavor of a grape while eating a jalapeño pepper. Both flavors are present, but one completely overpowers the other. In like manner, strong emotions overcome the delicate promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Going now to the beginning of this October 2009 talk, Elder Scott adds additional counsel to that given in his earlier talk:
- Elder Scott quotes John Taylor relating an experience with Joseph Smith ... "he told me never to arise in the morning without bowing before the Lord, and dedicating myself to him during that day."
- I am convinced that there is no simple formula or technique that would immediately allow you to master the ability to be guided by the voice of the Spirit.
- They [Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ] know that essential personal growth will come as you struggle to learn how to be led by the Spirit. This is yet another way Satan can get us to wander in the mist of darkness saying "the struggle is too hard". It isn't! Heavenly Father is there with us and will never ask us to do something without providing the way to do it ... including this.
- I witness that as you gain experience and success in being guided by the Spirit, your confidence in the impressions you feel can become more certain than your dependence on what you see or hear.
- Spirituality yields two fruits. The first is inspiration to know what to do. The second is power, or the capacity to do it. These two capacities come together. That’s why Nephi could say, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded.”
- As each impression came, I carefully wrote it down. ... After each ... impression was recorded, I pondered the feelings I had received to determine if I had accurately expressed them in writing. As a result, I made a few minor changes to what had been written. Then I studied their meaning and application in my own life. Subsequently I prayed, reviewing with the Lord what I thought I had been taught by the Spirit. When a feeling of peace came, I thanked Him for the guidance given. I was then impressed to ask, “Was there yet more to be given?” ...[there was] ... Had I not responded to the first impressions and recorded them, I would not have received the last, most precious guidance. Here is another thought worth reading and rereading carefully.
- I believe that you can leave the most precious, personal direction of the Spirit unheard because you do not respond to, record, and apply the first promptings that come to you.
- Have patience as you are perfecting your ability to be led by the Spirit. By careful practice, through the application of correct principles, and by being sensitive to the feelings that come, you will gain spiritual guidance.
- Sometimes the impressions are just general feelings. Sometimes the direction comes so clearly and so unmistakably that it can be written down like spiritual dictation.
- I bear solemn witness that as you pray with all the fervor of your soul with humility and gratitude, you can learn to be consistently guided by the Holy Spirit in all aspects of your life.
Returning to Elder Scott's earlier (April 2007) talk, he concludes with this reminder of the important role that sincere gratitude plays in prayer and in life,
An important aspect of prayer is gratitude. Jesus declared, “And in nothing doth man offend God … save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.” When we contemplate the incomparable gift of prayer and the limitless blessings that flow from it, honest appreciation fills our mind and heart to overflowing with thanksgiving.
I am very grateful for the prompting I had to search for the answer to my question ... and that opportunity I received to prayerfully study and ponder this precious apostolic counsel as a result. This means so much to me ... I hope it also does to you.