Question: How can you know if an answer to prayer, a personal revelation, is true?

Question: How can you know if an answer to prayer, a personal revelation, is true?

Understand how the spirit works and seek something unique to you and recognizable.

Some people have wondered how they can truly know that they are feeling the spirit and that their personal revelation and testimony really is born of a unique interaction with God through his Spirit. Since this applies to so many of the decisions we make and the lifestyle we live it is a good and normal question. The first thing that we should do with regard to all revelation is to understand how the Spirit works by reading the scriptures and getting an idea as to how the spirit has worked with others. We should compare our feelings to the pneumatology and principles of living taught by the scriptures and by modern-day prophets and apostles (for a fuller treatment of pneumatology, see Oscar McConkie’s The Holy Ghost: A Study of the Holy Ghost, According to the Standard Works of the Church). It stands to reason that if we want to be led by Christ’s spirit and follow him, then we will try and measure our lives against what he has revealed through his servants so that we aren’t deceived (JS Matthew 1:37). This means we interrogate and weigh the words of the standard works (since they are our standard of truth) and we take into consideration what has been taught by the living prophets and apostles in trying to make good decisions and bring ourselves in tune with the spirit’s whisperings. Through the scriptures, Christ has given us important indicators for recognizing the Spirit (for one example, see D&C 11:12, 13).

As taught in Preach My Gospel:

As you pray for inspiration, you should also confirm your feelings. For example, compare your decisions with the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets. Be certain that the feelings are consistent with the assignment you have; for example, you will not receive revelation to tell a local bishop how he should perform in his calling. Discuss your decisions and conclusions with your companion, your district leader, or your mission president when appropriate.

President Howard W. Hunter offered this counsel: “Let me offer a word of caution. … I think if we are not careful … , we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself” (The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, 184). The Spirit of the Lord always edifies.
[1]

Once we recognize how the Spirit may work, the best thing we can do is to seek a unique interaction with it—something that we can know is apart from normal thoughts and emotions—and trust in that to lead us to do good.

In order to continue to know with greater assurance that something is true, we should continue to endure in faith. We’re promised blessings for doing so.

Regarding the foundational witness for our testimony, Alma has taught us in the Book of Mormon that even after we have tasted of the fruit of faith, that we should continue to try and water the seed so that it will continue to grow. As it grows more and more, the greater assurance we can have that it is good and true (See Alma 32; D&C 50:24). This is how we should treat our own witness. The more we continue in light, we are promised that the light will grow and that as we believe, the signs will follow us (See D&C 63:9).

Regarding specifically impressions to do something, how can you know if an answer is true?

Personal revelation is a principle we grow into. If you want to know how to receive it and follow it, then you must work at it by trial and error sometimes. If you feel the promptings of the spirit to do something, then do it, and see what happens. We can do a lot to know if something truly comes from the spirit (see above for that), but debating an impression’s validity in a sort of theoretical way, won't ever provide you with an answer.

Regarding its manifestation in our mind, Joseph Smith talks of "pure intelligence" flowing into you:

A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God,will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.[2]

However, as Boyd K. Packer points out, revelation does not "flow without effort" on the part of the person desiring it.

To one who thought that revelation would flow without effort, the Lord said:

“You have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” [3]

This burning in the bosom is not purely a physical sensation. It is more like a warm light shining within your being.

Describing the promptings from the Holy Ghost to one who has not had them is very difficult. Such promptings are personal and strictly private![4]

Ultimately, it is a choice to believe in the reality of the spirit, understand the epistemology, work to be worthy to feel the spirit’s influences, and follow those influences courageously

Lehi gives his children this counsel at his death, teaching us an important principle.

2 Nephi 2: 27-28

27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

28 And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit

It’s natural to feel reticent at times to believe in the Spirit—if it is real and actually working in our lives. It is ultimately our choice to believe in it and follow its influence to eternal life.

Personal revelation can differ between two people

Latter-day Saints don't believe that differences in the phenomena experiences while feeling the spirit should always be the same. What it means is that 1) We are all working at understanding and following the spirit and 2) that we are all receiving personal answers to our prayers from a loving Heavenly Father, and others are receiving personal answers to theirs. Personal revelation is beautiful precisely because these differences can exist. It deepens our understanding and love of the fact that we are all unique children of our Heavenly Father.

Some may have “spectacular” experiences while others only hear a still small voice.

Boyd K. Packer:

We do not seek for spectacular experiences. President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of the many who "have no ear for spiritual messages … when they come in common dress. … Expecting the spectacular, one may not be fully alerted to the constant flow of revealed communication."[5]

Why does it differ in nature sometimes? One reason may be that perhaps the spirit witnesses to us in a way we can understand. It speaks to us “in our own language” so that we can come to understanding (D&C 1:24). For the intellectual, the spirit may manifest itself more often as clear thoughts and bring inspiration to the mind. For the more emotionally oriented, feelings of comfort, peace, and the phenomenon described in the scriptures.


Notes

  1. "How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?," Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (2004)
  2. Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith," 151.
  3. D&C 9:7–8
  4. Boyd K. Packer, "Personal Revelation: The Gift, the Test, and the Promise," Ensign (November 1994).
  5. Boyd K. Packer, "Personal Revelation: The Gift, the Test, and the Promise," Ensign (November 1994).