There are three aspects of the process of revelation. We might call these the three R’s of revelation. First, we must receive revelation. Second, we must recognize revelation for what it is when it does come. Third, we must respond to that revelation if we expect to receive more.
All three of these concepts are true of prayer as well. We need to be in a position where God will send us revelation. But we also need to learn how to recognize answers to our prayers when they come in unexpected ways. And, finally, if we ignore direction from the Lord when He gives it to us, our lack of response may be the answer to our question, “Why isn’t God answering me?”
Quieting Emotional Noise
Often in our lives we experience something like this: Our family is getting ready to leave on an extended vacation. Everything is packed and loaded into the vehicle. The kids are sent off to the bathroom one last time while Mom and Dad go through the house—again!—to check that all the windows and doors are locked. Finally, with everyone stuffed in the car, we drive off with a huge sigh of relief.
Then, about 10 minutes down the road, someone (often the mother) suddenly jerks to attention and says, “Did I leave the iron on?” (Or the stove, or the oven, or something else equally critical.) We’re pretty sure we didn’t, but we’re not positive, and we wonder if maybe this is the Spirit telling us that we left a dangerous situation behind. So we turn around and go back. And when we get back to the house and check the iron, not only do we find that it was not on but then we remember that we checked it twice before we left!
So, how can we tell if these kinds of feelings are actual warnings or promptings from the Holy Ghost or if they are just our own natural tendency to fret and worry? And if it is our own tendency to worry, why doesn’t the Lord set up a system for us to clearly distinguish between true revelation and our own emotion? Alas, that is not His way. Remember what President Boyd K. Packer said about counterfeit revelation:
“The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked, it is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual.” It is safe to assume that we could turn that last sentence around and say, “It is also possible to mistake a true spiritual prompting for our own emotional impulse.”
This is one of the ancillary aspects of the unique nature of the Lord’s voice. As often as not, His voice is not easily recognized. When it comes to getting answers to our prayers, one of the questions we ask most frequently is, “How can I tell if that was from the Lord or if it was just me?”
Here are three ways that our emotions can confuse us about personal revelation:
1. We want something so badly that it tends to dominate our thoughts and feelings, making it difficult for us to subject our will to His or making it difficult to recognize the voice of the Lord when He does speak to us.
2. We believe that having strong feelings proves that these feelings come from Heavenly Father.
3. We become self-centered and selfish, putting our needs, wants, desires, and priorities ahead of those of others, sometimes including God, and this deadens our spiritual senses.
Pushing Down Our Desires
We have all seen young children beg their parents to buy something in a store that has caught their eye. That thing is the coolest, most desirable thing in the world, and if they don’t have it they just know they will surely die right on the spot. But if the parents hold firm and say no, the children miraculously manage to survive, and a minute or two later they see something else, and the scene is repeated. Only this time, it really is the coolest thing ever and they really will die if they don’t get it.
Unfortunately, as adults, we don’t always fully grow out of that mode. We, too, may want something so badly that we press for our own desires rather than for what the Lord wants for us. Consider some “grown-up” examples of this behavior:
· We run up enormous credit card debt because we see something, we want it, and we buy it.
· A couple forgoes spending money on an enriching class, saying they don’t have the money. Two weeks later they go on a shopping spree at the mall.
· A son gives a blessing to his father, who is suffering from terminal cancer. The son promises the father that he will live for several more years. Within the week, the father passes away.
· A missionary is insistent that he go home. When asked what he will do when he returns, he answers that he hasn’t made any goals or plans.
· A spouse who was married in the temple feels a strong attraction for someone other than his or her spouse and claims that the Spirit is guiding him or her to leave the marriage and begin a new relationship.
· A young married couple feels a strong spiritual prompting to begin growing their family, but after talking it through, they decide they are not financially or professionally prepared to have children and so they do not act on the prompting
Strong Feelings Are Not Enough
It is not uncommon to hear people testify that they received an answer to their prayers and that they know it was from God because they “felt so strongly about it.” Here, too, we must take care. Undoubtedly, there are times when revelation comes in dramatic ways. But to set up strong feelings as the test for whether our feelings and thoughts are from the Lord can be highly problematic. We may feel strongly about all kinds of things that are not necessarily good.
For example, a young man, pressing his girlfriend to go further with physical intimacy than she feels comfortable with, cries out in exasperation when she tells him to stop, “This feels so right! It can’t be wrong!” Think how often strong feelings of attraction or greed or religious fervor can lead to immorality, divorce, crime, and even heinous atrocities supposedly done in the name of God. Jesus warned the Twelve in the Upper Room the night before His death that the time would come when “whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 16:2).
Here is some wise counsel from President Henry B. Eyring:
“I have had prayers answered. Those answers were most clear when what I wanted was silenced by an overpowering need to know what God wanted (emphasis added). It is then that the answer from a loving Heavenly Father can be spoken to the mind by the still, small voice and can be written in the heart.”
One common denominator in both of the topics we have discussed so far is selfishness, or being self-centered. Why would a missionary with no health concerns or other relevant difficulties choose to return home early when he has no specific plans or goals? Because his personal wants and desires for comfort take priority over everything else. Why does a boy press a girl to go further in expressing their physical affection than she is comfortable going? Well, in spite of what he says, it is not his tender love for her that’s motivating him!
We note that in some of these examples, we are not talking about glaring, terrible sins. Many times, instances of selfishness are not obvious reasons for failing to receive answers to prayers. We are not talking about extremely wicked people here.
It can be a big deal, though, if our first concern and commitment is for our own convenience, comfort, desires and priorities, likes, and dislikes. This attitude can create tremendous spiritual noise in our hearts. And when a crisis occurs in our lives, or we plead for God’s help, we may end up crying, “O God, why aren’t you answering me?”
Putting our wants above the needs of others, especially when our wants are driven by selfishness, is another serious source of interference in the fine-tuning of our lives, and therefore could be one of the reasons we are not getting answers to our prayers. Jesus gave us what is often called the Golden Rule, which directly counters the concept of selfishness: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Joseph Smith said, “Let every selfish feeling be not only buried but annihilated.” And a modern prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, put it this way:
“My plea is that if we want joy in our hearts, if we want the Spirit of the Lord in our lives, let us forget ourselves and reach out. Let us put in the background our own personal, selfish interests and reach out in service to others.”
As we begin our study of how God works with us as we pray to Him, let us keep in mind this counsel from President Russell M. Nelson:
“I recognize that, on occasion, some of our most fervent prayers may seem to go unanswered. We wonder, ‘Why?’ I know that feeling! I know the fears and tears of such moments. But I also know that our prayers are never ignored. Our faith is never unappreciated. I know that an all-wise Heavenly Father’s perspective is much broader than is ours.
“While we know of our mortal problems and pain, He knows of our immortal progress and potential. If we pray to know His will and submit ourselves to it with patience and courage, heavenly healing can take place in His own way and time."
Lead image from Shutterstock. Excerpt originally ran in the September/October 2018 issue of LDS Living.
It's a question we've all faced at one time or another. Why isn't God answering my prayers? We may seem to be doing everything right—going to church, fulfilling our callings, striving to strengthen our families, and, of course, praying. But still the answer doesn't come. If there are no serious sins blocking out the whisperings of the Spirit, why then do the windows of heaven still seem to be closed?
In his wise, conversational style, best-selling author Gerald N. Lund offers suggestions and solutions for all who are anxiously hoping to hear the voice of the Lord in their lives. He helps us to approach this timeless question with new perspective and insight that will help us realize the ways the Lord is answering our questions or the reasons He might not be—yet. Available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.