For the first few years of my marriage, when I’d casually ask my husband,
“What ya thinking?”
Often, he’d reply, “Oh nothing.”
I was confused.
Nothing? When had my brain thought– nothing?
Ummm, never? (Certainly, not when I was trying to fall asleep!)
My mind was a constant whirl of randomness; snippets of grocery lists, thoughts for upcoming lessons, reminders not to forget this or that for various children.
In other conversations with my husband I would seemingly jump from one subject to another and he would ask all confused, “Uh, where’d that come from?!?”
I’d walk him through the latest labyrinth of my neurological-network, “Well, this made me think of this, and that made me think of these other things, which totally made me think of…”
He would just be staring at me in disbelief and say, “You thought all that in like 30 seconds?!?!”
Yup! My brain train is all over the map and constantly derailing!
And I don’t think I’m alone. The woman’s mind is an awesome and complex place.
Yet, our minds combined with our hearts, we learn in modern revelation, are the very receptacles the Lord uses to communicate with us. He tells us, in D&C 8:2-3: “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.”
But how is the Lord supposed to get through all the other swirling, never ceasing thoughts and feelings that course through my heart and mind? Or more importantly, how am I to determine what thoughts are just Chelsea’s brain doing its never ending thinking thing, and what impressions are actually coming from the Lord?
Sometimes, even our sincere desires to hear and heed the right voices can turn into a desperation that can hinder more than help us on our quest. Let me share two ways I’ve seen this in my own life and then offer one mental shift regarding how we think about discerning the Spirit, which has, for me, made all the difference.
First, as Latter-Day Saints, I think we have been taught so constantly about the need to listen to that “still small voice” that we might become so attune, or even straining to hear the Spirit that we start picking up on all sorts of little voices from all kinds of sources. Not every little voice qualifies as Heavenly. Just because voices are quiet does not mean they have a divine source. For instance, I have many friends who struggle with anxiety and I myself have suffered from depression. I have worked hard to come to recognize the things my depression likes to whisper to me, just as my friends with anxiety have had to learn to differentiate healthy thoughts of concern with irrational fears and worries that seek to hold them hostage.
The second problem that comes from trying so hard to listen to the Spirit (especially when we just saw the variety of voices vying for our attention) comes when we become so desperate to be certain of divine direction that we begin to surrender our agency. I have definitely had this happen to me before. I’m in a good spiritual space and am filled with good desires. I am humble and prayerful and trusting. I have many wonderful experiences following subtle promptings and want more than anything to have more. Yet, slowly, my eager seeking morphs into a kind of nervousness and I begin to feel that without those direct instructions, I can’t even move. I was trying so hard to know exactly what the Lord would have me do, to learn His will, to the point it began, in a very real way, to paralyze me.
The question was asked: “How can we decipher the difference between our own thoughts and feelings versus the promptings and the voice of the Holy Ghost?”
First, Sister Carole M. Stephens, reminded us that “anything that’s good comes from the Spirit” and further that “If it’s a negative thought, if you’re unsettled, if you don’t have peace about it, then of course, you would know that’s not coming from the Spirit.”
Then Elder Holland added, “I think sometimes we can get almost immobilized over that question. Oh, is it me or is it the Spirit? And I think sometimes that’s almost a non-issue. God can speak to your heart and your intelligence and your mind and your experience… There are all these different ways that God can communicate. And I think, I think it’s maybe counterproductive to worry very much about where that’s coming from. You have some standards to measure by. You have the teachings of the gospel. You have the scriptures. You have the words of the Brethren. You’ve got a backdrop to measure some impressions and your truths by. But I wouldn’t–if you’re having a… good thought, good things come from God. And evil things and inappropriate things come from the adversary. And I don’t want to be simplistic about that because some of these are quite personal. And they’re not good or evil. They’re more fine-tuned decisions.
But I’ve just seen a lot of young people almost unable to function because they weren’t sure whether they were hearing this from the Lord or hearing it from themselves. If it’s a good thing, go with it. It’s from Him. It comes some way from Him. And it can come a wide variety of ways. I’d have people relax and go after good things.”
I cannot tell you how much that has helped me; the reminder that we have the gospel standards and teachings to measure our impressions by, and that I could simply trust in the good things I felt inspired to do. For me, this also re-emphasized a crucial aspect of communication with the Lord — trust. This meant not just trying to listen, but learning more about Who it was I was trusting enough to listen to.
I find such comfort in temple ordinances where our minds are specifically blessed with not just activity, but clarity. By far, the greatest key that I have found in clearly discerning the voice of the Lord in my life has to do with learning who He is.
The Lord in D&C 19:23 admonishes us to first “Learn of me” and then counsels us to “listen to [His] words.”
In this way, recognizing the Lord’s voice has less to do with what is being said and is much more about how that message reflects His divine attributes.
This has helped me so much because it reminds me that these messages aren’t coming from arbitrary celestial satellites, some command center in the cosmos, but from our loving Father who know and loves us more completely than we can even comprehend.
They are from Him.
And when we know that, and choose to learn more of his character, discerning His voice becomes much less of a cerebral exercise and much more a natural process of deciphering our eternal spirits’ innate ability to recognize our Eternal Parent’s voice. The voice our spirit already knows so well!
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God…I want you all to know Him,” he said, “and to be familiar with Him.”
When we know our Father is kind, then when we think unkind thoughts we can know they aren’t from Him.
He isn’t harsh or demanding. He isn’t critical or demeaning, so, when our mind starts to berate us or fixate on our failings we can know that is not how our Father chooses to speak to His children. As Elder Cornish explained, “He will love and correct but never discourage us; that is Satan’s trick.”
He is patient. He is kind. He is loving. He is gentle.
So, when thoughts come, (even if they are chastisements or calls to repentance) if they are from God they will be as loving and gentle as He eternally is.
Sister Reeves taught, “We sometimes, as women, have a tendency to be very critical of ourselves. During these times, we need to seek the Spirit and ask, “Is this what the Lord wants me to think about myself, or is Satan trying to beat me down?” Remember the nature of our Heavenly Father, whose love is perfect and infinite. He wants to build us up, not tear us down.”
What a liberating principle! How often do we begin the downward spiral of not feeling that we are enough, or that our repeated failures and sins are beyond redemption; that hope is very, very far away?
On her blog, Sister Stephanie Sorenson references some clarifying counsel given by Sister Julie B. Beck that I love and think about all the time:
“Any thought that tells you “you are not good enough” is from Satan.
If the thought tells you “you can do better and I’ll help you.” It is from Heavenly Father.”
I love that. If it doesn’t come with HOPE and HELP, it is not from Him.
I pray that in our sincere desires to listen to the Spirit we will get past the paralysis and not make it a complex game of deciphering, but instead, feel the beautiful opportunity which receiving personal revelation is, as it teaches us who our Father is and how He feels about us. May we, amidst all the tumult of the world, the incessant messages of the adversary, and even our own over-active brains, feel the personal loving messages He has for us. May we feel the gentleness in His voice as we learn to enjoy listening to, trusting in, and following His every tender word. This is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
“I feel very strongly that the gospel is not just something to contemplate or converse about, it is a tangible source of the strength, power and vision we need to apply in our lives and in our souls. As we do, we will be prepared to lead our families, our church, and our communities toward eternal principles and provide ourselves and others with the greater peace and joy the gospel of Christ so graciously offers.”
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