How can I distinguish the difference between the promptings of the Holy Ghost and merely my own thoughts, preferences, or hunches?
Dallin H. Oaks, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, June 1983, 27 (Dallin H. Oaks, former president of Brigham Young University, currently Utah Supreme Court Justice.)
The promptings of the Holy Ghost come as words spoken to the mind, as feelings, as ideas, and as impulses to do or not to do some act. (For a discussion of different purposes of such communications, see “Revelation,” New Era, Sept. 1982, p. 38.) But similar communications can be counterfeited by our own imaginings or by that unseen being whom scripture calls the Father of Lies.
The other members of the Godhead communicate with us through the Holy Ghost. The Savior said, “My sheep hear my voice.” (John 10:27.) One of the challenges of mortal existence is to learn to distinguish the voice of the Good Shepherd from the other voices and background noise on the field of life. Three tests can assist us.
1. The test of receptivity. The scriptures demonstrate that we are most likely to hear the voice or know the will of God if we are keeping his commandments. The Savior taught, “If any man will do his will, he will know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17). To cite a more modern example, Saints who keep the Word of Wisdom are promised that they “shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” (D&C 89:19.) If we are to be confident in distinguishing between spurious signals and the promptings of the Holy Ghost, we must be receptive to the Spirit. To do this, we must keep the commandments of God.
Worthy persons are more likely to receive spiritual gifts and to distinguish them from other experiences when they have put themselves in tune with the Spirit of the Lord. Actions that increase our receptivity to the Spirit include (1) fasting, (2) prayer, (3) worship through song, instruction, meditation, and temple attendance, (4) mental alertness, (5) service, and (6) freedom from the distractions of the flesh, such as lust, anger, greed, or even just noise and confusion. Impressions received while in a spiritually receptive condition are more likely to be authentic than those associated with influences, conditions, and thoughts not conducive to spirituality.
2. The test of bias. Each of us is influenced strongly by our own desires and preferences. We may even mistake these influences as the ratification or prompting of the Holy Ghost. It is therefore significant when we feel prompted to do something contrary to our personal preference. That is good evidence of authenticity. Conversely, a feeling that seems to confirm a person in some action he or she strongly desires should be received with caution and subjected to more than one test of validity. In that circumstance a person could well ask himself, “Am I humbly submitting myself to the will of my Heavenly Father and asking for his guidance, or am I proudly submitting my will to my Heavenly Father and asking for his approval?” Humility is more likely to receive inspiration; pride is more likely to be deceived and fall.
3. The test of content. Our Heavenly Father’s house is a house of order. He is a God of truth. In ancient times and in present days he has spoken and is speaking through his servants by the power of the Holy Ghost. By that same power he will speak to his children everywhere, and his message, like truth itself, will be consistent. God will not prompt his children to sin or go contrary to the specific direction or counsel of the leaders he has called and inspired to teach them. For this reason, we can often distinguish the promptings of the Holy Ghost from spurious signals by their consistency or lack of consistency with the commandments or counsel God has given us or all his children at an earlier time.