See the original of this post at the Meridian Magazine website at this link.
Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in April 1829. He had traveled from Palmyra to investigate for himself whether the reports he had heard about Joseph and the gold plates were true. The Lord gave him the confirmation he sought (see D&C 6), and then told him that he was immediately to begin assisting Joseph in the translation of the Book of Mormon, serving as his scribe.
A few days later, Oliver expressed a desire to also have the gift of translation. In response, the Lord gave through Joseph what is now Doctrine and Covenants 8. That revelation included a simple and yet remarkable statement on the nature of revelation.
Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground(D&C 8:2–3).
In the mind and in the heart. That is a key concept that requires further exploration. Thoughts and Feelings
If the Lord wanted to speak to our minds, what word would we use to describe how his message comes? Probably we would say those revelations would come to us as thoughts. And if He wanted to speak to our hearts, we would say that in those cases, His voice would come to us as feelings. And therein lies an important insight about how the voice of the Lord communicates to us.
We noted earlier that the fact that the voice of the Lord is still and small and whispers is part of the challenge we have in recognizing personal revelation. How can we be sure we’ve heard those almost imperceptible whisperings?
So it is with this aspect of the Lord’s voice as well. If He speaks to us through thoughts and feelings, how are we to distinguish between His thoughts and feelings and our own?
Someone has compared human consciousness to a great stream of thoughts and feelings. Every waking moment of our lives (and often in sleep as well), our minds are filled with thoughts and we are experiencing feelings. It is like a mighty Mississippi River of thinking and feeling.
Our emotions cover a vast range of different feelings — boredom, attentiveness, frustration, excitement, anger, happiness, sadness, fulfillment, disappointment, pleasure, hurt, humiliation. Trying to list every emotion we feel is as impossible as trying to list every thought we think.
So when we receive a thought or a feeling through the Holy Ghost, how do we recognize it as being different from our own? How do we distinguish it from this never-ending flow of our own thoughts and feelings? To use the river analogy, it is as though from time to time there is a soft plop as one of the Lord’s “pebbles” is dropped into this mighty Mississippi of our consciousness. Should we be surprised, then, that many times when the Lord speaks to us in this way we miss it entirely?
So How does It Work?
One of the most challenging (and intimidating) things that general authorities and area seventies are asked to do is to choose a new stake presidency during the creation of a stake or the reorganization of an existing stake presidency. It involves visiting a stake where typically the authority doesn’t know any of the leadership personally.
Even more challenging, the general authority is often assigned to go to a country where he does not speak the language and has to do everything through translators. Yet in a period that lasts no more than about twelve hours, a decision must be made that is in harmony with the Lord’s will.
Fortunately, through many years of experience a process has been tried and proven viable that makes this quiet miracle work week after week all over the world. Since this process is a wonderful illustration of how the voice of the Lord works in a very practical and real-life situation, a brief description of the process may be of value, along with some actual examples of how it works.
First of all, there are always two authorities assigned to such conferences so that they can confer together and confirm what the Lord is prompting them to do. This also fulfills the law of witnesses (see D&C 6:28).
In most cases they arrive in the stake on Friday evening or early Saturday morning to begin a series of interviews. The priesthood leadership of the stake (normally the stake presidency, patriarch, bishops and branch presidents, and high councilors) are asked to come in for brief, private meetings with the two presiding authorities.
In the individual interviews, each priesthood leader briefly shares a little information about himself and then is asked for names of brethren he would recommend for consideration as the new stake president. He is also asked to briefly explain why he feels as he does.
This process is based on an example found in the Old Testament. When Samuel was told by the Lord to choose a replacement for King Saul (1 Samuel 16:1), the phrases used to describe what happened in that process are instructive:
“Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel” (v. 8).
“Jesse made Shammah to pass by” (v. 9).
“Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel” (v. 10).
Not until Samuel saw David did he finally feel who was to be the next king. When that finally happened, the account says simply:
“And the Lord said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he” (v. 12).
The series of interviews with the priesthood leadership of the stake allows the potential candidates to “pass before” the presiding authorities. As they do so, thoughts and feelings begin to come to them. Sometimes they come quickly. Other times they come only after the interviews are completed.
Rarely are these thoughts and feelings dramatic or remarkable. They are almost always very gentle and very subtle, almost like a whisper. Sometimes they come when the person first enters the room. A very quiet feeling comes that he could be the one. Other times it is something the person says that triggers a feeling of rightness. Often thoughts come into the minds of the interviewers, and they are prompted to ask a question that helps reveal the heart of the person being interviewed.
Occasionally, feelings may come from simply hearing the name of a person the authorities have not yet met. It is no more than a fleeting feeling that this name could be significant. Later, when that person comes in, they have a feeling of peace about him.
It is not always a positive confirmation. Sometimes a man comes highly recommended by others, but during the interview there is no confirming witness, and the authority knows that this is not the man the Lord has chosen at this time.
When the interviews have been completed, the two authorities close the door and spend time together reviewing their experience. They go over the list of names again. They share thoughts and feelings they may have had during the process. They discuss impressions that have come.
This fits another scriptural model on how to receive revelation. Oliver Cowdery was told that it was not enough to simply ask the Lord for an answer. He was to study it out in his mind, and then ask the Lord if his decision was right. Then would come a confirmation, either as a stupor of thought or a burning in the bosom (see D&C 9:8–9).
In some cases, this discussion may last only a few minutes because both authorities have a clear conviction about who the person is to be. In other instances, there may be no such feelings with either of them, and a more prolonged discussion is required to let the feelings and impressions come.
Though it doesn’t happen often, there are times when they receive no confirmation about any of the men they have met. In such cases other names are sought and further interviews are conducted. But whatever particular route the process may take, the two brethren who have the assignment constantly search their mind and heart. They look inward, reviewing feelings they have had or thoughts that have come to them.
During this private consultation process (or studying it out in their minds), eventually the two brethren come to a consensus. They reach a joint decision. At that point, they kneel together in prayer and put their decision before the Lord. Typically, each prays individually, placing the chosen name before the Lord and asking the Lord “if it be right” (D&C 9:8). When the prayers are finished, they briefly sit, quietly looking inward, searching their heart and listening for that still small voice of confirmation. When it is clear they are in complete harmony on the matter, they invite the chosen person back and extend the call.
Again, I wish to emphasize how “normal” this process seems on the surface, even though it is quite remarkable. Time after time the process works, but it has never been — at least for me — something that people would think of as dramatic or miraculous. To an observer, the process would seem perfectly normal. But it works. Over and over, week in and week out in countries all across the globe. It works!
It has been a little surprising to me how often, once the decision is made and the call extended, the Lord sends what I call a “confirmation” or a “second witness.” It is a second witness because the first comes during the selection process. Again, these are not great or dramatic experiences, but just quiet ways the Lord lets us know, once more, that His will was achieved.
It may come when the wife says something that indicates that she had received some feelings about what was coming. Or the candidate may make a comment that causes the two visiting authorities to look at each other and smile, because it fits perfectly with something they had talked about earlier. It may come in the setting-apart blessing or in a host of other ways.
There was one challenging case where an Area Seventy and I were assigned to reorganize the stake presidency in a stake that had some peculiar and rather pressing needs, and we felt particularly concerned that it be done right. This was in a country where I didn’t speak the language, and so I had to have the Area Seventy translate for me throughout the proceedings. That complicated it for me, adding to my concern that it be done right.
During the interviews, we both felt good about one of the bishops, and upon receiving the quiet assurance that this was right, we called him to be the stake president. But even as he accepted and his wife expressed her support for him, I can remember thinking to myself, “O Lord, this feels right, but this is so important. I hope we read Thy inspiration correctly.”
Then at the end of our interview, as he stood up to leave, he said to us, “Well, now I understand the dream I had the other night.” At the questioning look on our faces, he explained. He said that in his dream he saw himself in the stake president’s office sitting across the desk from the current president. This was not unusual for him because he was a bishop and was often with the stake president.
“But,” he went on, “as we finished our meeting and I stood up to go, the president also stood up, removed his suit coat, and came around the desk and placed it around my shoulders.”
As he said that, I immediately thought of the prophet Elijah placing his mantle on Elisha to signal that Elisha was chosen by the Lord to carry on the work after Elijah was taken. I instantly offered a silent prayer of thanks for that “second witness.” The man we had called was indeed the man the Lord had chosen before we even arrived.
In one way it was a remarkable experience because of what it signified, but in another way the experience itself was quite ordinary. The bishop received a quiet impression to share his dream with us. He spoke in a calm tone, much as if he were telling us something about his family. For something so remarkable, it was remarkably unremarkable.
On that day I gained a deeper appreciation for why the Lord says the still small voice can pierce the heart and cause it to burn. My heart was deeply touched that day, and I was filled with gratitude for that additional witness from the Lord. That witness indicated not only that we had understood His will regarding the new stake president, but it also told us that He was there, that He was watching over this stake, that He is indeed at the head of the Church and actively leading and directing the work of His Heavenly Father.
That is just one example of how this whole wonderful process of revelation works.
How Do Prophets, Seers, and Revelators Describe the Voice of the Lord?
In chapter 5, we examined how scriptural writers have tried to describe what the voice of the Lord is like. We will now hear from some who have experienced it and have tried to help us better understand what it is like.
While the words the Brethren use as they describe their experiences with revelation may not always perfectly clarify our understanding, they do relate to our own feelings and experiences. As we read their words we find ourselves nodding and saying, “Yes, I understand what he means there. I have experienced that myself.”
Throughout this chapter and the previous one on the still small voice, we have included numerous quotes of those who have been sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators. Some of these have come in the body of the text. Others were displayed as separate quotes. From these we will extract a few descriptive phrases these brethren use as they talk about the still small voice and the voice that comes into our minds and hearts. We will not try to further define what these phrases mean but will let their words stand on their own. In all cases, “it” refers to the voice of the Lord.
It yields the fruits of the kingdom.
If our hearts are open it brings conviction.
It whispers consolation to the soul.
Boyd K. Packer:
It caresses gently.
It is a sweet, quiet voice of inspiration.
It comes more as a feeling than as a sound.
Pure intelligence can be spoken into the mind.
Joseph Fielding Smith:
It can be as deep and meaningful as anything tangible.
It is penetrating.
Spencer W. Kimball:
It comes as deep, unassailable impressions that settle on the mind as dew from heaven.
They are deep feelings.
It is an impressive consciousness of direction from above.
Dallin H. Oaks:
It can take the form of enlightenment of the mind.
It can come as positive or negative feelings about how to act.
It can uplift our emotions.
Harold B. Lee:
It is not audible to our physical hearing.
Joseph B. Wirthlin:
It enters quietly into our mind and heart.
It is so simple and precise we assume it is our own idea or a passing thought.
As we reconcile these whisperings to what we know to be true, we learn to recognize them.
So there it is:
The voice of the Lord is still, small, and whispers.
The Holy Ghost speaks to us in our minds and in our hearts.
But are these statements really two different descriptions of the Lord’s voice? Or are they merely two different ways of expressing the same idea? The fact that the voice of the Lord comes most frequently through thoughts and feelings, which are easily missed or mistaken for something of our own, is just another way of saying that the voice is still and small and whispers.
Why is it a still voice? Perhaps precisely because it speaks to us through thoughts and feelings rather than audible words.
Why is it a small voice? Could that be because it comes as such a mild, gentle feeling, it seems small and insignificant compared to our other emotions? And these feelings or thoughts are so subtle, so indirect, so like our everyday experiences, it is as though the Lord were whispering them to us in the midst of a tumult of other sounds