Listen: Elder Bednar’s advice on discerning between the Spirit and your own thoughts

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Elder David A. Bednar speaks from the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Elder David A. Bednar has spoken many times about the principle of receiving personal revelation. But there’s one question he’s heard more than any other: “How do I know if it’s me or the Spirit?”

In this week’s All In episode, Elder Bednar shares examples from the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon to discuss how personal revelation is an act of faith and how the Lord is guiding each person along their path.

Read more of his insights in the excerpt below.

You can listen to the full episode here or in the player below. You can also read a full transcript here.

Editor’s note: This excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Elder Bednar: I’ve always found it strange that we talk about the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost and we seem to have little recognition that that’s real. We say it—but do we believe it? … You know, we’re mortals, we make mistakes. So I’m not talking about every nanosecond of every moment of every minute of every day. Obviously, the Spirit is stronger on some occasions than it is on other occasions.

But as long as we are doing our best and pressing forward on the covenant path, and repenting as we go, then indeed, we are influenced by the Holy Ghost all the time. And I think we fundamentally divert ourselves by wondering, “Well, is that me? Or is that the Holy Ghost?” The more time we spend worrying about that, the more we get in our own way in recognizing the consequences of having the companionship of the Holy Ghost.

I love the 80th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, and it’s one of the most obscure sections. It’s a mission call to a man by the name of Stephen Burnett. And in there, the Lord says, “Go to the north, go to the south, go to the east, go to the west, it mattereth not unto me.”

Now, some might read that and say, “Well, the Lord doesn’t care.” That isn’t what He said. What the Lord knows is he’s going to get Stephen Burnett to wherever he’s supposed to be, what Steve Burnett has to do is move his feet, “Now, Stephen, just start moving.”

So it’s not that the Lord didn’t care. It’s that Stephen isn’t in charge. He’s going to be where he needs to be. He’ll be influenced, guided, directed. Sometimes we have expectations and if it doesn’t come when we want, the way we want, we think that the Lord didn’t hear us. And we have to be careful not to charge God foolishly.

We don’t frequently get real, big, fast answers. They’re not big and dramatic, they come line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. And we have to wait on the Lord, not impose deadlines on Him. But if we just will follow that path and believe—not just say, not just accept, but believe in my life, ‘I can have the companionship of the Holy Ghost,’ then the most fascinating line in Section 80 is when it says, “He cannot go amiss. You’ll never be led astray.”

It doesn't mean everything goes the way you think or the way you want. But you will never go amiss because we’re constantly being guided. Nephi goes to Jerusalem three times to get the brass plates, right? Was he messed up the first time? I don't think so.

Morgan Jones: No.

Elder Bednar: He didn’t succeed the second time. Only the third time does he go, going the Lord’s way, not knowing beforehand the things that he should do. Why do we miss the lesson in that story? It’s at the very beginning of the Book of Mormon. I think it’s there for a reason. We read it a million times. We come to the Isaiah chapters and stop and then go back and read it again and again and again.

Because Nephi, who we all look to as the ultimate example of faithfulness, had no idea how that was going to work. He just went to Jerusalem. Well, that’s what it takes for us. That’s why I use the analogy of swimming. You know, when you first swim, you’re terrified. You’ve never been in the water; you don’t know what to expect. But the longer you practice and the more acclimated you become to the water, the less you consciously have to focus on the mechanics of the strokes and you’re just in the water swimming.

I think that analogy has some merit for—not that we take it for granted, not that it becomes easy or casual, but we quit worrying about the mechanics and we just go, and you begin to recognize the Lord’s hand getting you to the places where you need to be.

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Morgan Jones: I love that so much. Thank you so much for sharing all of that. And I feel like I need to go reread section 80. You mentioned this analogy about swimming. And I just want to quote something that you said. You said, “Just as we can learn to quit worrying about how to swim, we can come to a point where we stop worrying about whether or not we are receiving personal revelation.”

And I’ll say this Elder Bednar, I feel like the reason that I wanted to ask that question is because I am one of those people that I’ll think that I’ve learned how the Lord speaks to me and how I hear Him, but then a little bit of time will pass. And I’ll be right back—it feels like—at square one. So I feel like this is something that we learn and relearn over and over and over again.

Elder Bednar: Absolutely. And why would it have a predictable, consistent pattern all the time? There are many different patterns of how revelation comes to people. I’ve had lots of occasions to be in Africa, and so many of these faithful people in Africa have phenomenal dreams.

It is not uncommon for missionaries to meet someone on the street, and the person will say, “I saw you in a dream that I had last night. And I know you have a message from God for me. I’m ready to listen.”

Now, I served my mission in Germany. And I never encountered anybody who had a dream like that when I was banging on the door. I don’t know why that particular mode may be more frequent in Africa than in other parts of the world, but it’s just not always the same. Sometimes people will have dreams. Sometimes there can be a really sudden stroke of inspiration that’s quite recognizable. And many times, it’s just—we’re trying to be good and we’re going and we’re being influenced and guided in the moment, just like Nephi and we have no idea that it’s happening.

You [have to] consider that Nephi, when he wrote those words that we have in the Book of Mormon, was reflecting back on the experience that he had. And as he looked back, in essence, I believe he’s saying, “I had no idea how this was going to work.” Faith is a principle of action. So he starts on his way to Jerusalem. And as he’s on his way, things begin to happen and doors open, and he obtains the plates of brass. Was he under the influence of the Spirit when he was walking back to Jerusalem? Yes. Is he consciously aware? I don't think so. That’s the way it is for most of us, all the time.

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