The roles of both the mind and the heart in personal revelation are crucial, and no simple formulas or recommended action steps can guide us through this rigorous spiritual process. Indeed, this . . . is not an attempt to define how revelation works. Rather, it is a witness and a testimony that revelation does work—and in a multitude and variety of ways.
The closest I can come to describing my purpose is with the metaphor of swimming. When we are learning how to swim, almost all of us start out being terrified. We do not know what to expect; we do not know what to do. We first learn how to hold our breath, how to float, and how to perform a few basic strokes. As we gradually gain experience and confidence, and as our strokes improve, eventually we just begin to move through the water. Our movements become increasingly natural and graceful. The precision and rhythm of our strokes make air and water almost indistinguishable from each other. We know we are in the water, but it is no longer a big deal that we are in the water. Our learning and practice have replaced our fear with a settled assurance that “we can do this!”
We learn in the scriptures and in the sacrament prayers that we “may always have his Spirit to be with [us]” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:77; emphasis added). And as we truly learn and trust that the Spirit is operating in our lives, it is as if we have been swimming for a really long time: we are in the flow and have quit worrying about the strokes and the mechanics involved. We increasingly move forward with the faith that we are being guided by the Spirit.
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. Some people spend a good deal of time fretting about a basic question: “Was that revelation, or just me?” In essence, these individuals are flailing around in the beginning stages of trying to keep their heads above water. People can become so focused upon and preoccupied about “Am I receiving revelation? Is this a revelation?” that it actually may hinder their ability to receive revelation.
Getting out of our own way—overruling our personal desires, expectations, preferences, and lack of understanding in order to hear and feel the voice of the Spirit—is one of the great challenges of our mortal probation. But the task is not so much to persuade the Spirit to guide us as to recognize that He is and has been guiding us all along.
If we are striving to be and become good—not perfect right now, but gradually getting better—if we are honoring our covenants, seeking for the companionship of the Holy Ghost, worthily partaking of the sacrament and retaining a remission of our sins, and pressing forward, then indeed we can have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. We are not “preparing to receive revelation”; we are “living in revelation.”
. . . I have attempted to summarize . . . a number of principles I have observed regarding the spirit of revelation. Then I have included examples of revelation from my own life and the lives of others. These experiences will provide “practice” to help you recognize revelation operating in your own life, much as you would practice the strokes you learn in swimming.
I pray that . . . your ‘confidence [shall] wax strong’. . . that the spirit of revelation is operating in your life.
My hope is that, as a result of the ideas I share and the whisperings of the Spirit to you, you will be able to discern more clearly the consistent help from heaven you have received in your life in the past. I pray that your faith in the Savior will grow stronger, your hope for the future will shine brighter, and your “confidence [shall] wax strong” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:45) that the spirit of revelation is operating in your life.
The Still and Small Principle
Even as we strive to be faithful and obedient, there simply are times when the direction, assurance, and peace of the Spirit are not readily recognizable in our lives. In fact, the Book of Mormon describes faithful Lamanites who “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not” (3 Nephi 9:20).
People might ask, “Why would the Lord not make the voice of the Spirit easy to recognize all the time?” I would suggest a simple answer—because God trusts us and wants us to grow. As covenant-making and covenant-keeping members of His restored Church, we should not expect or need Him to dramatically shake us to get our attention.
Instead, the influence of the Holy Ghost is described in the scriptures as “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12; see also 3 Nephi 11:3) and a “voice of perfect mildness” (Helaman 5:30). Thus, the Spirit of the Lord usually communicates with us in ways that are quiet, delicate, and subtle. For example, you may have an occasion when you forget to pray in the morning. And all of a sudden, you hear in your mind the voice of your mother, who, when you were small, would say, “Remember your morning prayers.” Why would God send an angel to deliver that message to you when the Holy Ghost, the third member of the Godhead, who brings “all things to your remembrance” (John 14:26), can prompt a recollection of your angel mother reminding you to pray? The spiritual effect is the same.
President Boyd K. Packer explained: “These delicate, refined spiritual communications are not seen with our eyes nor heard with our ears. And even though it is described as a voice, it is a voice that one feels more than one hears. . . . The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather, it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all” (That All May Be Edified , 335–36).
I have wondered if we as members of the Church talk about and emphasize marvelous, magnificent, and dramatic spiritual manifestations so often that we perhaps overlook the customary influence of the Holy Ghost that is quiet, delicate, and subtle. I have heard people say, “If I could just be like Saul on the road to Damascus and see a light, or have an angel come to me like Alma the Younger, then I would know.”
I mean no disrespect—and I am not trying to be light-minded or casual—but, spiritually speaking, Saul was “messed up.” He was a staunch persecutor of Christians and had been “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He participated in the stoning of Stephen (see Acts 7:57–8:3) and worked to seek out and arrest followers of Jesus, with the intent of returning them to Jerusalem as prisoners for questioning and possible execution (see Acts 9:2).
Do you think such a man was prepared to sense, hear, feel, or respond to the still small voice? In order to get the attention of this wayward man, the Lord had to use the equivalent of a spiritual lightning bolt. Some people may think that single experience transformed Saul into Paul. But that was not what converted him. Ultimately, he was converted by doing what you and I need to do: read, study, pray, fast, and obey consistently. It is not by marvelous manifestations that a witness of the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ comes; rather, it is by the simple, steady performance of the fundamental things that we know we should do.
Perhaps many members of the Church today do not typically see lights and hear voices on their personal journeys to Damascus because they have been blessed to be in a much better place spiritually than was Saul. God trusts us to learn about and respond to the still small voice of His Spirit (see Doctrine and Covenants 85:6–7).
Alma the Younger was “a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities. And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them” (Mosiah 27:8–9).
Alma the Younger, just like Saul, spiritually was “messed up!” He was not prepared or ready to respond to the still small voice of the Spirit. Consequently, he received an overpowering wake-up call, even a spiritual slap in the face.
God trusts us to learn about and respond to the still small voice.
The appearance of an angel did not convert Alma. Rather, the heavenly visitation simply initiated a conversion process that ultimately transformed Alma the Younger into a devoted disciple of the Savior. In fact, as he told the people of Zarahemla, “I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself” (Alma 5:45–46; emphasis added).
Please note that Alma did not mention anything about the appearance of an angel. Perhaps members of the Church do not typically see and converse with angels because they have been blessed to be in a much better place spiritually than was Alma the Younger.
In my ministry, I have talked with many people who, because they have not had some miraculous manifestation or a personal interview with a heavenly being, question the strength of their own testimony and spiritual capacity. Consider this counsel from President Joseph F. Smith: “Show me Latter-day Saints who have to feed upon miracles, signs, and visions in order to keep them steadfast in the Church, and I will show you members of the Church who are not in good standing before God, and who are walking in slippery paths. It is not by marvelous manifestations unto us that we shall be established in the truth, but it is by humility, and faithful obedience to the commandments and laws of God” (Gospel Doctrine [1986 ed.], 7).
President Spencer W. Kimball explained, “The burning bushes, the smoking mountains, the sheets of four-footed beasts, the Cumorahs, and the Kirtlands were realities; but they were the exceptions. The great volume of revelation came to Moses and to Joseph and comes to today’s prophet in the less spectacular way—that of deep impressions, without spectacle or glamour or dramatic events. Always expecting the spectacular, many will miss entirely the constant flow of revealed communication” (Conference Report, Munich Germany Area Conference, 1973, 77).
Honoring your covenants and keeping the commandments are the surest indicators of your spiritual capacity. Just keep moving forward with faith in the Savior, and “all things [will] work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).